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Lightbulb politics

 

Asheville Citizen-Times July 30, 2008

You know that Mallard Fillmore, the duck with two right wings, and his human friends are flapping nowhere fast when they have to add lightbulbs to the list of things we should fear. Terrorists, illegal immigrants, liberals, compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs).

Seizing on the fact that the new twisty bulbs contain mercury, they would have us panic if we break one. Incensed that Congress and President Bush enacted a law banning incandescent lightbulbs by 2014, they cry “Big Brother.” And to top it off, CFLs are made in China. OMG

Mercury is a real health threat, and CFLs do contain 4-5 mg of the stuff. Most warnings about eating fish are due to mercury contamination. It’s not just canned albacore tuna and swordfish. High mercury levels led the NC Department of Health and Human Services to advise children and women of childbearing age against eating largemouth bass caught anywhere in North Carolina. The suggested limit for other people is one meal per week.

How did the bass get contaminated with mercury? Mostly from the operation of coal-fired power plants. In 2005—before the installation of scrubbers—the Lake Julian plant alone pumped out 215 lb. of mercury. The majority went up the smokestacks.  That’s about 20 million CFLs worth.

Fluorescent lights aren’t ideal, but they’re a big step in the right direction. Incandescent bulbs are inefficient, burning 3-4 times the amount of electricity needed by a CFL. Even if all dead CFLs went to landfills, the net reduction in environmental mercury, bulb plus coal-fired power, is in the neighborhood of 3.5 mg per bulb. This translates directly to less mercury in our air, water, and fish.

The call to hysteria over broken CFLs fails to recognize an important bit of context. All fluorescent lights contain mercury. The prospect of broken tubes has been with us for decades. What’s new is official recognition that we should be more careful about cleanup. This is as true of 4-foot tubes as it is CFLs. Why the uproar only about CFLs?

Recycling of fluorescent lights remains a problem in many places. Buncombe County is not among them. Last year, Buncombe became the first county in the United States to offer residents recycling for CFLs and other fluorescent tubes at selected fire stations. Free. 24/7. Big box stores are finally beginning to step into the breach as well. Home Depot now offers free CFL recyling at all US locations, but they don’t accept broken CFLs or other types of tubes.

On top of these advantages, CFLs are an easy way to save on electric bills. Over the life of a CFL, the higher purchase price of the bulb is paid back several times over. So why do some who call themselves conservative rise up to denounce CFLs?

Chalk it up to an unforeseen consequence of global warming. Most or all CFL opponents don’t believe in it, or if they do, don’t believe humans cause it. By opposing CFLs they’re defending America from Al Gore and legions of radical environmentalists who, mounted on snarling polar bears, are galloping down upon us to turn out our lights on behalf of the communist Chinese. Less fevered conservatives point to lobbying by lighting manufacturers such as Philips, Sylvania, and GE. Who’d have thought major corporations would do US that way?

But hey, grab some popcorn. Check out Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) on YouTube wailing about CFLs. Imagine his terror, menaced in almost every commercial building by monstrous long fluorescent tubes that threaten to scramble his telecommunications and rain mercury on his head. Perhaps the pocket copy of the Constitution he waves around doubles as a protective hat. Used to be that reality-challenged folks preferred tinfoil for that purpose, but time marches on.

—Michael Hopping
Copyright © 2008 all rights reserved

 

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