09/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Green" Light Bulbs Have Mercury: Who Knew?

The United States Congress has passed a bill that provides for the phasing out of all incandescent light bulbs by 2014 (100-watt bulbs can not be used after 2012).

The primary alternative for consumers today is the Compact Fluorescent Light bulb (CFL). These bulbs are said to be 75 percent more energy efficient and are promoted as lasting longer than incandescent bulbs. These two factors are used to justify the higher price tag (CFLs are approximately $3 per bulb vs. 50 cents for an incandescent).

Most consumers won't grumble too much about paying more for a longer lasting, more energy efficient bulb that saves money in the long run -- environmental experts say one CFL can save $30-$100 on reduced energy costs over its lifetime. However, this move toward greater energy efficiency is more complex than consumers might realize because all fluorescent bulbs -- both the 4-foot office style bulbs as well as the new spiral-shaped bulbs for household use -- contain mercury, a known neurotoxin. Mercury is the ingredient that makes the inner phosphor coating of any fluorescent bulb produce light.

While the mercury content in each bulb is quite small, the content is high enough to merit warnings on the Environmental Protection Agency's website as to how to clean up an area if a homeowner accidentally breaks a bulb. Consumers are told to ventilate the room immediately, and that everyone should leave the room for 15 minutes to avoid breathing the mercury vapors. A vacuum should not be used in the area, and after broken pieces are picked up by hand or using a broom, the pieces should be sealed in a plastic bag. Many municipalities specify that this waste should be taken to a hazardous waste dump rather than being thrown in the regular trash.

Even if a homeowner does not break a bulb, the disposal of anything containing mercury, including light bulbs, is hazardous. While stores such as Home Depot and Ikea have begun offering programs to recycle used bulbs, concerned citizens who do not have these stores nearby have to find hazardous waste centers in their area or mail used bulbs back to a manufacturer. In 2008 industry experts reported that only 2 percent of all CFL bulbs were being recycled.

Fluorescent bulbs that are not recycled go into the trash that then gets dumped into a local landfill. As rain comes down on the landfill, mercury from thousands of CFLs seeps into the local water supply, which then exposes both animals and humans to more mercury in the environment.

As a result of this very real environmental risk factor, inventors are moving forward to create better solutions. Thomas J. Irvine's company, ClearLite, is introducing a new light bulb in October that prevents mercury contamination if the bulb is broken.

Irvine, president and CEO of the Parkland, Florida company, was determined to make a green product that was as safe as possible. "I didn't want my children exposed to a neurotoxin like mercury, so I didn't want other people's children exposed either."

ClearLite's ArmorLite bulb has a protective silicon skin that helps encapsulate the mercury. If the bulb is broken the mercury vapor is not released into the air. Irvine's team also found that it was possible to use a mercury amalgam (similar to what is used for some dental work), which reduces the amount of mercury needed. The bulbs still need to be recycled for proper disposal.

Another invention nearing completion is the adaptation of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) into a bulb that can be used in regular household light sockets. The technology has been employed for about 40 years, and can now be found in indicator lighting systems, digital displays, traffic lights, and some types of home and office track lighting.

In 6-9 months, the chairman of Lighting Sciences Group, Govi Rao, says his company will introduce a new dimmable, energy-smart LED bulb for household use. The solid-state bulbs produced by Lighting Science Group require a fraction of the power required by regular bulbs and are expected to last 10-12 years, making bulb changing a rarity.

Rao also started his company out of long-term concern for the environment. "If everyone recycled, fluorescent lights would be all right, but it took people 25 years to become accustomed to recycling paper. Why do we think people will start recycling bulbs more quickly?" says Rao. "Short-term, the CFL bulbs save energy, but long-term -- without recycling -- we cause mutation of the human race by poisoning our environment with mercury."

This summer (June 2009) Maine passed legislation that requires CFL bulb manufacturers to share both the cost and the responsibility for recycling these bulbs. Massachusetts, Vermont, and California are expected to follow Maine's lead. However, even though Maine's bill goes into effect on September 12, manufacturers are not required to begin collecting used bulbs until 2011.

This leaves the recycling burden on the consumer for the time being. For those who do not live near an Ikea or a Home Depot with a recycling program, Vanessa Vadim, a contributor to Mother Nature Network, notes that is a great site for finding locations near you for various forms of recycling.

Based on last week's post on mercury in amalgam dental fillings, I have heard from a good number of people with their opinions on the FDA ruling. This response shows that people are seriously concerned about mercury exposure, so I will re-visit this topic in a few weeks after doing more research.