Click the image above to order the Junkman's: Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams.
Looming Lightbulb Liability
Thursday, February 21, 2008
By Steven Milloy
The speeding freight train carrying toxic waste liability for makers, sellers and purchasers of compact
fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) was only faintly audible in the distance last spring when this
column first warned of it. Now we’re beginning to see that environmentalist-stoked train speed toward
its victims, who President Bush and Congress just finished tying to the tracks.
CFLs and all other fluorescent lightbulbs require special clean-up and disposal procedures
because they contain small amounts of mercury, which is neurotoxic
at sufficiently high exposures. For example, you’re not supposed to vacuum breakage or to toss used bulbs in
Despite these clean-up and disposal hassles, environmental groups, bulb makers and retailers have relentlessly
promoted CFL use as a strategy for reducing electricity consumption and the power plant emissions allegedly
causing global warming.
Eco-activist groups, like Environmental Defense -- which historically have agitated to banish toxic substances
from homes, workplaces and environment -- surprisingly have
said that the mercury in CFLs is nothing to worry about. But this new posturing flies in the face of the
multitude of scary activist-inspired studies that hyperventilate about potential health risks from the
slightest exposures to mercury, not to mention a 1987 article in Pediatrics reporting real-life mercury
poisoning of a 23-month old from a broken fluorescent light bulb.
President Bush and Congress joined the CFL promotion racket, too. The energy bill enacted last December
mandates that traditional incandescent bulbs be phased out starting in 2012. CFLs are pretty much the only
... continues below advertisement:
This activist-business-government marketing juggernaut has succeeded. Wal-Mart
alone sold 100 million CFLs last year.
But the partnership is about to implode. As predictable as Lucy pulling away the football from a determinedly
charging Charlie Brown, the environmentalists are preparing to turn the tables on the CFL businesses and
The signal came in a Feb. 17 New York Times editorial entitled, “That Newfangled Light Bulb.”
The editorial read, in part, “Across the world, consumers are being urged to… switch to [CFLs]... Now the
question is how to dispose of [CFLs] once they break or quit working… each [CFL] has a tiny bit of a
dangerous toxin… almost 300 million CFLs were sold in the U.S. last year. That is already a lot of mercury
to throw in the trash and the amounts will grow ever larger in coming years… the dangers are real and
The Times continued, “Businesses and government recyclers need to start working on more efficient ways to
deal with that added mercury. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health at Johns Hopkins
University in Baltimore , is raising the cry about the moment when millions of these light bulbs start landing
in landfills or incinerators all at once. The pig in the waste pipeline, she calls it.”
Aside from the editorial’s implicit targeting instructions for eco-agitators and trial lawyers, I could only
chuckle at the editorial’s nod to, and partial disclosure about, Silbergeld. For many years, she was a “senior
scientist” with Environmental Defense who, before moving on to left-wing academia, excelled at fomenting
dubious scares about “toxic” substances in the environment.
During Silbergeld’s days with Environmental Defense in the 1990s, the group’s pitch to the media was “when
fluorescent bulbs are crushed, traces of mercury vaporize and enter the atmosphere. If the lamps are buried,
the toxic element seeps into the soil.”
Until the Times editorial, the activists and the media had been holding back their customary attacks against
mercury-containing fluorescent light bulbs.
In lamenting the bulbs, Clean Water Action told the media in 1997, for example, that the mercury level in tuna
is so high that a 35-pound child eating more than 2-ounces a week would exceed the EPA’s “safe” level.
But while CFL-mandating legislation was pending in Congress, the enviros did a temporary flip-flop:
Environmental Defense began pooh-poohing mercury concerns stating, “In short, the exposure from breaking a
CFL is in about the same range as the exposure from eating a can or two of tuna fish.”
Two-ounces of tuna used to be a horror, but in the name of CFLs, two cans became no problem.
The Associated Press reported in 1992 that fluorescent light bulbs were helping to “poison the Everglades
with toxic mercury, threatening humans [and wildlife]”. In December 2000, a Massachusetts newspaper reported
in an article entitled “Environmentalists call for mercury product ban” that the Massachusetts governor
proposed that trash-burning incinerators develop plans to separate fluorescent light bulbs and other
mercury-containing consumer products from waste.
The business fantasy is for the nation’s 4 billion-plus light sockets to sport CFLs. There’s much more ka-ching
in selling 4 billion $5 light bulbs as opposed to incandescent bulbs costing $0.75. But what about the mercury
problem that may impose substantial liabilities on businesses and consumers faster than CFL light bulbs turn
Today’s business leaders apparently have forgotten the infamous Superfund program that needlessly and
retroactively imposed tens of billions of dollars of costs for pre-1980 waste disposal practices regardless of
whether they were legal at the time. CFL maker GE, in particular, is now involved in a senseless $500 million
clean-up of industrial chemicals known as PCBs buried long ago in Hudson River sediments.
Imagine the clean-up costs from billions of CFLs disposed in landfills and burned in incinerators across the
country. Superfund even imposed bankrupting liability on mom-and-pop businesses. Imagine the peril of
home-based businesses that casually toss CFLs in the household trash.
First mercury was dangerous. Then, temporarily, it became no big deal. Now that the Greens have caught us in
the CFL trap, they’re reverting to form on mercury -- all to cause the sort of chaos resulting in increased
government control of our lives.
As Johnny Cash sang, “I hear the train a comin’, it’s rollin’ round the bend…” The question is:
Will President Bush and Congress just leave us on the tracks?
JunkScience.com is updated every weekday. Items from the main page are moved to the archives.
Links should be good for at least the date posted. After the posting date, link reliability depends on the
policy of the linked sites. Some sites require visitors to register before allowing access to articles.
Material presented on this page represents the opinion of JunkScience.com. Copyright -- 1996-200
JunkScience.com, Inc. All rights reserved on original works. Material copyrighted by others is used either
with permission or under a claim of "fair use."