The Dark Side of CFLs

Trace amounts of mercury in CFL bulbs pose an environmental concern, particularly when they land in regular landfills.© Pricegrabber

While the world embraces compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL) as an energy-efficient alternative to the incandescent bulbs that have reigned supreme for 125 years, a new crop of concerns has arisen about the potential for mercury contamination from the newer bulbs. While each CFL contains only a trace amount of mercury, landfill managers are worried that large numbers of them ending up in their facilities could pose problems for employees, not to mention surrounding communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends switching over to the bulbs for the energy and greenhouse gas emissions savings, but it acknowledges that the newer bulbs pose a contamination problem when they break. The agency’s website provides a detailed outline on how to air out a room and eventually dispose of the pieces of a broken CFL so as not to endanger family members or the environment.

Currently only seven U.S. states ban putting CFLs in the regular landfill-bound garbage, and there are still very few CFL recycling centers. "I think there’s going to be hundreds of millions of [CFLs] in landfills all over the country," says Leonard Worth of the Illinois-based CFL recycler Fluorecycle.

CFL manufacturers are working hard to minimize the amount of mercury in their bulbs while simultaneously ramping up R&D on other high-efficiency bulbs that do not contain toxic elements (such as light-emitting diode bulbs and high-efficiency incandescents). A solution is needed urgently, as Australia, China and now the U.S. have made big commitments to CFLs in order to lower their carbon footprints.

Sources: MSNBC; Energy Star

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