Wednesday, September 22, 2010

TODAY'S CATCH: Whose Bright Idea Was This?

Chris Philips

The Washington Post reported last month that the last US incandescent light bulb plant had closed its doors, ending the careers of the 200 remaining workers at a plant that could trace its origins to Thomas Edison’s work in the 1870s.

The simple light bulb is no longer welcome here.

In 2007, influenced by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) among other groups, Congress passed an energy conservation measure that banned the incandescent bulb after 2014, in favor of energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL). Unfortunately, the new CFLs being touted by the feds are difficult to assemble, and are only cost-effective if made in China, where labor is less expensive and environmental regulations are less restrictive. The writing is on the wall for conventional incandescent bulbs, which have worked so well for the last 140 years.

One of the downsides to CFL was noted in this paper in July 2009: the ballast in the bulbs can interfere with radio and navigation equipment. The FCC and the Coast Guard have warned that the new bulbs should not be installed near maritime safety communications equipment or other critical navigation or communication equipment operating between 0.45-30 MHz. This leads to the obvious question of what operators are supposed to use in their place.

Another, larger issue is the fact that CFLs contain mercury. While the manufacturers and anti-energy lobby want you to believe that the amount of mercury in a CFL is insignificant, the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks released a report in May of this year noting that one broken bulb will release one third of the mercury considered safe for lifetime human exposure. In the same report, the US EPA determined that exposure to the mercury in one bulb is more than 55 times what the agency considers safe human exposure over a 24-hour period.

In fact the US EPA has guidelines for cleaning up a broken CFL. One bulb, mind you. These steps include evacuating the room, scooping up the broken pieces with a stiff piece of cardboard and placing them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar). After cleaning the area with sticky tape, wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes, and place these in the jar as well. Do not use a vacuum or broom.

If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away.

Here is where fish come into the picture. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, and it’s especially dangerous for children and fetuses. Unfortunately, it is widely believed that most environmental exposure to mercury comes from eating fish.

As we noted in this space in February 2009, Hollywood is already citing mercury levels in fish as an excuse for bad behavior, and the media have picked up the supposed link and run with it. The US EPA currently advises American consumers to not eat more than 12 ounces of fish a week (only 6 ounces if your choice is albacore).

As more of these bulbs find their way to landfills (which is where the EPA recommends they go) and release their captured mercury, it’s safe to assume the levels of mercury in the world’s oceans will increase, no doubt leading the EPA to reduce the recommended amount of fish a US consumer should eat. As bad as compact fluorescents will be for the commercial fishing industry, the EPA shows all the signs of being even worse.

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