Guest Commentary

The truth behind the legend of compact fluorescent lamps

Sometime during that annual period in Tucson when it gets a little bit hotter every day until it rains, I found a bright yellow flier under my doormat. As if to rub salt in the meteorological wound, it sounded the clarion of climatic nightmares to come in the form of global warming, and offered a small, perhaps tiny, opportunity to take action.

The flier announced a new program, or campaign, or something, through the neighborhood association to save energy, one light bulb at a time. It outlined some of the conservation benefits of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) versus regular incandescent light bulbs and urged me to "make the switch to a lighter future."

But now I was disturbed that these things were in my home. I had come across a news item a while back detailing the suburban nightmare of some woman in Maine who had broken one of the bulbs in her daughter's bedroom. CFLs contain mercury, and apparently the dust and vapor that are released when you break one are considered hazardous waste. If you believe terror-mongering media like Fox News, CFL might as well stand for Chemical Fragmentation Launchers. If the Osama Brigade ever were to invade our shores, we could pelt them with CFLs and reduce them to a hacking, choking, quivering mess.

Anyway, this poor woman in Maine called the state's Department of Environmental Protection to find out what to do about her little problem. The bureaucrats, never failing to miss a chance to turn a little problem into a big problem, suggested that she call a hazardous-materials team, which she did--only to discover that they wanted $2,000 for the cleanup. In lieu of forking over her daughter's college savings to clean up one freakin' light bulb, she sealed the room off with duct tape and plastic and blundered into the journalistic situation room that turns small-town tribulations into national scares.

For my part, it nagged at me that my cynical Murphy's 35th Corollary of Technological Doom was once again being proven beyond a lamp shade of a doubt: Technology always creates as many problems as it solves. Choose your poison: wasteful energy consumption and rampant global warming, or coating your homes and towns with mercury.

Overworked and unwilling to spend precious time hunting down the truth, I instead lay awake at night and contemplated the dark possibilities. After a particularly feverish rumination, augmented by the jarring sounds of my cat precariously rattling the items on the desk beneath the window as he postured to show the Siamese across the alley who really runs the 'hood, another alternative acronym presented itself. I was one clumsy but calculated maneuver away from Conspiratorial Feline Lampicide! After years of neglect, vaporous vengeance would be his at last!

And now the bright yellow flier indicated that the whole neighborhood would soon be salted with little toxic bombs. I read it more closely and discovered that an old friend from the enviro wars was one of the ringleaders (How could she?), and that the office of my favorite city council person, Karin Uhlich, was also involved. (Say it ain't so!)

That sealed it. It was time to shine some light on this mystery, one way or another. There was only one thing left to do: I climbed the cybermountain to visit the conspiracy guru. I remembered receiving an e-mail from him a while back with CFLs in the subject line. I had ignored it, on the assumption that it was yet another alarmist proclamation about the dangers of doing good in misguided ways. I waded through 400 unread e-mails and dug it up.

To my qualified relief, it led me to a debunking Web site that reduced the Maine scare to a suburban legend, but did not disprove my cynical corollary. As it turned out, those bureaucrats in Mooselandia were just as ignorant about CFLs as the panicked soccer mom was. Each bulb contains only 5 milligrams of mercury, and while dumping millions of them in landfills certainly does constitute a collective public-health threat (the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality includes fluorescent bulbs on its household hazardous waste list), dropping one of them on your floor can be cleaned up with a broom (NOT a vacuum cleaner) and a damp paper towel, for a total cost of roughly one penny.

There ya have it. Controversial Feelgood Lightbulbs. Get 'em while they're hot.

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