Fluorescent Lights' Mercury Poses Dim Threat

Scott Norris
for National Geographic News
May 18, 2007

They're breakable, contain toxic material, and are becoming increasingly commonplace. But fears of mercury poisoning from new energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs are overplayed, experts say.

Long billed as a "green" product for environmentally conscious consumers, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are quickly becoming the norm in household lighting—and may soon replace traditional incandescent bulbs altogether.

But CFLs' cool-burning illumination is made possible by a pinch of poison—about five milligrams of mercury sealed inside every glass tube—and the need for the element is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and long-lived environmental contaminant, and even the small amount present in CFLs poses a problem. When the bulbs break, either in the house or at a waste disposal site, their mercury content is released.

According to a few vocal CFL opponents, such as Fox News Web site's "Junk Science" correspondent Steve Milloy, that makes the bulbs unsafe.

These critics have charged environmentalists with being uncharacteristically "pro-mercury" when it comes to the lights.

The critics often cite the recent story of a resident of Ellsworth, Maine, who amassed a clean-up bill of more than 2,000 U.S. dollars by shattering a single CFL in her home. The story originally appeared in the Ellsworth American and quickly spread to other newspapers, such as Canada's National Post and the Washington Times.

But the enormous bill came about as a result of bad advice—a fact often omitted in follow-ups to the original article.

"There's a lot of misleading information out there," said Joel Hogue, president of Elemental Services and Consulting, an Ohio-based company specializing in the cleanup of sites contaminated with mercury. "But when people learn the facts, the level of hysteria dies down."

Like with many other household products, Hogue said, the use of CFLs requires some commonsense precautions. But if a bulb breaks, his company's clean-up services are not required.

"There's an extremely small amount of mercury in those bulbs," Hogue said. "It's a very minimal risk" and can easily be cleaned up at home.

One CFL contains a hundred times less mercury than is found in a single dental amalgam filling or old-style glass thermometer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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