Dangers of light bulbs prove serious

Everyone has heard the jokes about changing light bulbs, but it turns out light bulbs can be no laughing matter.

Aside from the shards of glass, a broken incandescent light bulb is harmless. However, due to their gross energy inefficiency, Congress effectively banned incandescent bulbs in 2007 through the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act.

The bulb that is being touted as the energy-efficient alternative to the ‘Edison bulb’ is the compact fluorescent light bulb, or CFL. The trouble with CFLs is that they contain mercury, which happens to be the most poisonous, non-radioactive, naturally prevalent substance on earth. Mercury poisoning can result in damage to the brain, kidneys or lungs, and children and pregnant women are especially susceptible to its effects.

The Internet is awash with critics and proponents of CFLs, with each side seeming to have its own ideas about how safe or dangerous CFLs really are. Surely the federal government can shed some light on this, right?

While simultaneously downplaying the quantity of mercury in each CFL by comparing them to ‘older thermometers’ (as if that has any relevance to the discussion), the Environmental Protection Agency offers an alarmingly lengthy regimen for cleaning up broken CFLs. The steps include such vagaries as instructing people to shut off the air conditioning system for ‘the next several times’ they vacuum and to ‘check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area.’

Therein lies the real hassle. Every city determines whether its residents can legally throw CFLs in the garbage, or if they must be recycled.

Of course, this fact is never mentioned on the bulb packaging; trying to dispose of a broken CFL becomes a tedious homework assignment for consumers, not to mention an equally tedious and potentially hazardous cleanup procedure.

To top it off, Houston’s municipal government offers only three locations that accept CFLs for recycling, one of which is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every second Thursday each month. Many purchasers of CFLs may have no idea what kind of ordeal they may be in if they happen to break a bulb.

The Federal Trade Commission proposed new labeling requirements for light bulb packages last week, mainly to help consumers sort through all the information regarding new bulb technology. In the press release, the issue of mercury is mentioned as an afterthought, buried under all the other proposed packaging considerations such as luminosity, bulb life and energy savings.

As it stands now, CFL packages have a small icon on the back stating that the bulbs contain mercury and refers consumers to a Web site.

That’s not good enough.

New packaging is a great idea, but the packages should refer consumers to a Web site for savings facts, not critical health information.

There is clearly a health issue involved with these bulbs and the government is not being upfront with consumers about it. The packages need all the relevant toxicity information clearly written on them, with instructions for cleanup and locations for disposal. If all that can’t fit on the package, then perhaps the next thing for Congress to consider is whether CFLs are worth having in the first place.

Jared Luck is a communication senior and may be reached at [email protected]

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