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The Truth About CFL Light Bulbs

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Q: I just made the switch to CFL light bulbs in my home, but heard they contain mercury. Is this true? If so, is it better to switch back to my old incandescents?
A: First of all, congratulations on making the switch to CFLs! Since they use up to 75 percent less energy than incandescents, you’ve probably already noticed a reduction in your energy bills. Now to your first question: Do CFLs contain mercury? Yes. One of the things that helps CFLs use less energy is the fact that they contain trace amounts of mercury sealed within their glass tubing. According to the EPA, the amount of mercury contained in each bulb is an average of about four milligrams, which is roughly equivalent to an amount that would cover the tip of a ball-point pen. By way of comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury. It would take approximately 125 CFLs to match that amount.

Given the small amount of mercury each CFL light bulb contains, they pose little danger to the average consumer. When in use or left intact, CFLs do not release mercury. Many manufacturers have taken significant steps to reduce the amount of mercury used in their fluorescent lighting products. Thanks to technology advances and a commitment from the members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the average amount of mercury in CFLs will continue to decrease as time passes.

As such, there’s no need to switch back to your old incandescent bulbs. Given the amount of energy and fossil fuels incandescents burn over their short life span, they emit more mercury (and other toxic chemicals like sulphur and nitrogen oxide) into the atmosphere than energy-efficient CFLs.

Unlike incandescents, CFLs have the distinct advantage of being designed in a way that their mercury can be collected and recycled at the end of their average seven to twelve year life cycle. The only potential risk of mercury exposure from CFLs occurs at the time of their disposal. At that time, it’s best to recycle them properly by wrapping them and dropping them off for safe disposal at a CFL collection site like Home Depot or Ikea, which also recycles batteries and other toxic household products. For more information on safe disposal of CFLs, contact your local municipal solid waste agency, or go to epa.gov or earth911.org to identify your community’s recycling options.

So why all the focus on CFLs these days?
Most advocates opposing the switch to CFLs are backed by large corporate oil, coal, and natural gas interests. Sadly, these fossil fuel interests are the biggest contributors to global warming and environmental pollution, and their lobbying dollars are largely responsible for the anti-environmental spin currently taking place in mainstream media.

Thankfully, conscious consumers like you are smart enough to do their homework and make informed buying decisions based on fact, not fiction. Keep up the good work! 

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