Are fluorescent bulbs actually toxic? |

Are fluorescent bulbs actually toxic?

Dear Terra,

We have dutifully changed the light bulbs in our home to compact fluorescents where we don’t mind the pasty light quality. Now we find out the things contain mercury! À quoi bon? When were environmentalists going to let us in on this toxic little secret?


Poisoned in Potato Patch

Indeed, Patch, compact fluorescents do contain mercury that slowly dulls the minds of an unsuspecting populace such that they will easily bend to the pinko, liberal agenda.

Um, sorry, let me turn off Fox News real quick … there we go.

All fluorescent lights contain mercury, a fact we proponents and the government should be better at communicating to consumers. It is a issue now because there is such a movement afoot to convert regular incandescent bulbs to fluorescents to save the planet from global warming.

CFLs, as you know, use a quarter the power of incandescents to produce the same amount of light and last 10 times longer. You can also dismiss your concerns over “pasty” light, as CFLs now have special coating that provide better hues, including the bluish we’re used to in normal bulbs.

Other improvements in CFLs: they no longer hum or buzz; they turn on instantly (no more flicker); “warm” to full brightness much faster; and are even available as floodlights and dimmable-style. They are more expensive than regular bulbs, but pay for themselves in mere months with the electricity savings.

But, mon dieu! They have mercury, a nasty toxin. Remember the mercury thermometers we used to suck on when we had a fever? Smart. Those have gone the way of lead-based paint (excepting with Chinese toy manufacturers, of course), so why is mercury still allowed in CFLs?

It turns out mercury exists all over in things like thermostats, thermometers, computers, appliance switches and cars, and in far, far greater amounts than in fluorescent lights.

The corkscrewy bulbs aren’t as fragile as our traditional bulbs either, and so are more difficult to break. But, if a CFL does break, just use a couple of pieces of disposable paper or cardboard to sweep it up, tie up the whole lot in a plastic bag and throw it away.

(By the way, I generally shy from shouting in print, but DO NOT vacuum up (and thus vaporize the mercury in) the broken bulb.)

All this is really no biggie when you consider the many other toxins we keep in our homes (ammonia, drugs, chlorine, phthalates, etc.). But in not explaining the risk before people fill their homes with CFLs and allowing them to make the choice first, we toss Fox News a sensationalized slow ball right over home plate.

And remember, unbroken fluorescents pose no risk whatsoever. So, when finally faced with a bulb that has burned out (it hasn’t happened to me yet), it would be nice to keep it out of our landfill where it and thousands of others would certainly break and enter our watershed.

This is another area where the government has fallen down; there is no comprehensive disposal strategy for these things which are rapidly accumulating.

Locally, however, households may bring unbroken CFLs or regular, tube fluorescents to the Eagle County landfill or the offices of the Eagle Valley Alliance for free and safe disposal.

So is mercury in CFLs andissue? I think so, but mainly because consumers are not properly educated in how to handle and dispose of them, and there is inadequate regulation and opportunity for proper disposal. But if every U.S. home replaced just one incandescent bulb with a CFL, it would be the equivalent of taking 1.3 million SUVs off the road or eliminating two coal-fired power plants.

CFLs are a fine illustration of how we have put ourselves into these awful positions of choosing lesser evils because we have lacked forethought. Have we learned our lesson? Well … oh, wait, Fox News is on again.



Terra Mater is the resident know-it-all at the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability ( If you have a question about local recycling, sustainability or other such issues, e-mail Terra at

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