March 19, 2008
By Danielle Doane
Last year Congress passed a bill aimed at reducing energy
consumption. That's a laudable goal. Who doesn't want to save
One of the proposals signed into law, though, goes too far - and,
as I recently found out with my kids, can even endanger your
Lawmakers mandated the eventual replacement of conventional light
bulbs - incandescent, to use the technical term - with compact
fluorescent lights, or CFLs. They're supposed to be 4 times more
efficient than incandescent bulbs, so it made sense to try them.
During a recent weekend, however, the law of unintended
consequences hit home in a very personal way.
It was a typical Sunday. The kids were running around. Then, a
crash - there went my favorite lamp. Yes, I was upset about the
lamp, but as I looked closer, fear gripped my heart. The lamp had
one of those new CFL bulbs. They contain mercury.
I immediately shooed my children away. I was too scared to be
angry. I then did what anyone with a toxic substance leaking into
the floor would do: I cleaned it up.
That was a mistake. You see, if you break one of the new CFL
bulbs, it turns out your first course of action should be to open
all doors and windows and air out the room. Oh, and everyone should
leave for at least 15 minutes. Didn't know that? Funny, neither did
You see, the mercury actually changes to vapor at room
temperature, and it can be inhaled, as I probably did leaning over
the shards of the bulb to clean it up.
My next mistake was to vacuum up the remaining little pieces,
since I couldn't seem to corral them with a wet towel. Now I have
to throw away my new $400 vacuum. It turns out mercury can get into
your vacuum and, once heated in the motor, can infect the air
The one bright spot is that this happened on a hardwood floor. If
it had been a carpeted floor, a new study out of Maine actually
recommends you cut out the piece of carpeting infected by the
mercury to make sure it doesn't get vacuumed up and start swirling
around in the air.
Of course, I didn't learn all of this until I spent three hours
searching the Internet and talking by phone to the local
poison-control office. All I could find on the actual box was that
there was indeed mercury in the bulbs and a Web site to
So here I sit with the recriminations and the questions. Did my
kids get exposed to mercury in the few moments it took to clear the
room? And how much was I exposed to while cleaning it up? It was
just a light bulb after all, right?
According to the EPA, the amount of mercury in CFLs is less than
the tip of a ballpoint pen. This is good - except for the fact that
since you can't actually see it, you can't really be sure you
cleaned it all up.
Should I pay to have a service come out to monitor whether I
cleaned up properly? Should I have my family tested for mercury
poisoning? It seems so silly, after all, for just a light bulb. But
can you ever be sure enough?
It was my choice to buy the bulb and put it in the lamp. However,
under the new law passed last year, incandescent bulbs will begin
to be phased out in 2012, and people will no longer have a choice.
I wonder how many of them will understand these complex clean-up
and disposal procedures to ensure their families' safety?
CFL bulbs may save a lot of energy and help the environment. For
some people, they may be the right choice. But we always need to
beware the law of unintended consequences. And for now, this mom
will be using incandescent bulbs. At least until my lamp breakers
are old enough to play responsibly.
Doane is a director of congressional relations at
the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Washington Times
Last year Congress passed a bill aimed at reducing energy consumption. That's a laudable goal. Who doesn't want to save energy?
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