Consumers in dark over
risks of new light bulbs
Push for energy-saving fluorescents
ignores mercury disposal hazards
WASHINGTON – Brandy Bridges heard the claims of government officials, environmentalists and retailers like Wal-Mart all pushing the idea of replacing incandescent light bulbs with energy-saving and money-saving compact fluorescent lamps.
So, last month, the Prospect, Maine, resident went out and bought two dozen CFLs and began installing them in her home. One broke. A month later, her daughter's bedroom remains sealed off with plastic like the site of a hazardous materials accident, while Bridges works on a way to pay off a $2,000 estimate by a company specializing in environmentally sound cleanups of the mercury inside the bulb.
With everyone from Al Gore to Wal-Mart to the Environmental Protection Agency promoting CFLs as the greatest thing since, well, the light bulb, consumers have been left in the dark about a problem they will all face eventually – how to get rid of the darn things when they burn out or, worse yet, break.
CFLs are all the rage. They are the spirally shaped, long-lasting bulbs everyone is being urged, cajoled and guilt-tripped into purchasing to replace Thomas Edison's incandescents, which are being compared to sports utility vehicles for their impracticality and energy inefficiency. However, there is no problem disposing of incandescents when their life is over. You can throw them in the trash can and they won't hurt the garbage collector. They won't leech deadly compounds into the air or water. They won't kill people working in the landfills.
The same cannot be said about the mercury-containing CFLs. They bear disposal warnings on the packaging. But with limited recycling prospects and the problems experienced by Brandy Bridges sure to be repeated millions of times, some think government, the green community and industry are putting the cart before the horse marketing the new technology so ferociously.
Consider her plight.
When the bulb she was installing in a ceiling fixture of her 7-year-old daughter's bedroom crashed to the floor and broke into the shag carpet, she wasn't sure what to do. Knowing about the danger of mercury, she called Home Depot, the retail outlet that sold her the bulbs.
According to the Ellison American, the store warned her not to vacuum the carpet and directed her to call the poison control hotline in Prospect, Maine. Poison control staffers suggested she call the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
The latter sent over a specialist to test the air in her house for mercury levels. While the rest of the house was clear, the area of the accident was contaminated above the level considered safe. The specialist warned Bridges not to clean up the bulb and mercury powder by herself – recommending a local environmental cleanup firm.
That company estimated the cleanup cost, conservatively, at $2,000. And, no, her homeowners insurance won't cover the damage.
Since she could not afford the cleanup, Bridges has been forced to seal off her daughter's bedroom with plastic to avoid any dust blowing around. Not even the family pets are permitted in to the bedroom. Her daughter is forced to sleep downstairs in an overcrowded household.
She has continued to call public officials for help – her two U.S. senators included. So far, no one is beating down Bridges' door to help – not even Al Gore, whose Academy Award-winning movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," urges everyone to change to CFLs to save the planet from global warming.
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