Compared to incandescent light bulbs, compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs offer tremendous energy savings. It used to be that the only complaint with CFL’s was that the quality of the light was poor and difficult on the eyes, and some people found it annoying that they buzzed. Well, I can attest to the fact that those problems have been solved, as the CFL’s that I just purchased put out excellent-quality light and are extremely quiet as well. There is, however, one more issue with these bulbs: they contain tiny amounts of mercury.
People often cite this fact as a reason for not switching to the more energy efficient CFL bulb, yet mercury is really only an issue in two circumstances: 1) if the bulb breaks (see this explanation from the EPA on what to do in that case) and 2)if the bulb is not recycled (which can be done easily and simply. Go to lamprecycle.org for more info, or log on to Earth 911 to find local recycling centers).
People also don’t realize that burning coal releases mercury as part of the burning process. In fact, according to The Journal of the Conservation Law Foundation, “coal-fired power plants are responsible for approximately 40 percent of the nation’s mercury emissions, representing the single largest source of mercury air pollution,” and mercury emitted has “the potential to be transported hundreds, and even thousands, of miles in the atmosphere.”
I found the following calculation from Grist, which shows that because a CFL uses much less energy, it therefore results in less mercury being produced at the power plant than there is mercury in the bulb:
On average, a U.S. kilowatt-hour generates .012 milligrams of mercury. So, a 20-watt CFL running for a (shorter than expected) lifetime of 10,000 hours would generate 2.4 mg of mercury, while a comparable 75-watt incandescent running for 10,000 hours (you would need more than one bulb, of course), would generate 9.0 mg. A big difference, as you can see. Add in the 5 mg of mercury that might reside in a CFL bulb (the high average I saw) and you get a total of 7.4 mg — still less than the incandescent. (See the entire article here)
CFL’s are extremely efficient: a 13 watt bulb will put out as much light intensity (lumens) as a 65 watt incandescent bulb. But CFL’s are not the most efficient bulbs on the market. That distinction goes to light emitting diodes (LED’s), which can use as little as 1 watt per bulb and last even longer than a CFL. LED technology, combined with a greener electricity grid, would not only mean less mercury pollution, but also fewer emissions of greenhouse gases and lower energy costs. So why are they virtually impossible to buy? According to liveearth.org,
“On a similar note, others have written in asking why we are not promoting LED’s, or light-emitting diodes, instead of CFL’s. LEDs are a great technology just coming to market. They are even more energy efficient and long-lasting than CFL’s however their current initial cost is prohibitive – often over $100 for a single 100watt equivalent light bulb whereas a CFL is $3-12. For certain industrial applications where bulbs are difficult to reach and replace, it also makes sense, but it is beyond the reach of the majority of consumers. If you have the money to spend on LED’s, you may wish to experiment and be a very early adopter of this next-generation lighting technology.”
In other words, what we really need is for Washington to subsidize LED technology and get those bulbs out into the market sooner rather than later. Not using LED’s is a foolish thing to do given that air pollution, global warming, energy costs and energy security are such big issues right now.