Among concerns about the health dangers of Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs), which contain mercury, the Alberta Government continues to promote the product in its efforts to green itself and the world. The light bulbs are a good example of how elected officials and civil servants –eager to jump on the environmental bandwagon for the sake of political appearances– put people at risk and damage the natural environment in whose name they adopt such misguided policies.
At one website promoting Earth Hour environmental activism, the Alberta Government recommends here that people
Recycle and use compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs). If every household in Alberta changed just one light bulb to a CFL, it would be the same as taking the emissions from 66,000 cars off the road.
They go on to advise further:
Slowly replace all the bulbs in your home. Each time you visit your grocery or hardware store, look for sales and purchase a few more CFL bulbs. Check your electricity bill today, and after replacing 10 lights in your home over one month, check again for energy and cost savings.
For all night lighting, you can cut costs by replacing bulbs with lower wattage bulbs or by choosing a compact fluorescent or a nightlight.
In spite of this damning Health Canada report [in pdf] dating back to February 2012, the information the Alberta government offers makes no mention of the significant risks involved.
You will have noticed that in the first citation above they recommend that one recycles CFLs. Yet, there are not many safe methods to recycle these bulbs, which means that the mercury they contain is invariably making its way to landfills across the country. Given that the federal government has mandated that we stop using incandescent bulbs in favour of CFLs by next year (2014), one can hardly blame the provincial enthusiasm to comply.
In some cases, the provincial government is giving grants for municipalities to convert their lighting to CFLs, thus unwittingly contributing even more to mercury pollution.
Wikipedia, never a paragon of prudence or restraint, figures the environmental risks are large:
In the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that if all 270 million CFLs sold in 2007 were sent to landfill sites, around 0.13 metric tons of mercury would be released, 0.1% of all U.S. emissions of mercury (around 104 metric tons that year).
Exposure to mercury pollution is known to affect greatly the nervous system and the brain. But exposure to CFL lighting may also have negative effects on people suffering from Lupus.
Whatever number of cars the usage of one CFL bulb may be equivalent of, the dangers of breakage for people with children at home are particularly high considering that a portion of the mercury in the bulbs is vaporized.
The protocol recommended for handling a broken CFL is akin to handling toxic waste. It includes leaving the room and removing all pets, airing the room for as long as 30 minutes, using gloves to pick up the debris, restraining from vacuuming, and disposing of the debris in sealed containers. When you break these things in wintertime, it will add significantly to your heating bill, waste energy, and again achieve the opposite of what it intends.
Using these bulbs presents too high a human health risk and an environmental risk far greater than desirable for the sake of appearing to be green or to save a few dollars.