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Sunday, 13 May 2007

About the mercury in CF light bulbs

A lot of you would have heard that compact fluorescent light bulbs contain one nasty ingredient which the old-style incandescent blubs do not: the dreaded mercury. Everyone agrees that it's good to have bulbs which use less electricity but are we just trading one problem for another?

Well first the good news: although incandescent bulbs don't contain mercury their widespread use still contributes to the release of mercury into the environment around us. This is because the majority of the world's electricity is generated by burning coal and the combustion gases produced contain all sorts of unfriendly things including a significant amount of mercury. Because CF bulbs use so much less electricity and they last so much longer it can be argued that they will result in less mercury entering the environment overall.

That will probably be true for as long as we continue to produce electricity the way we do today. But if we can reduce our reliance on mercury-emitting fuels like coal or tighten up processes so that less of those pollutants are released from a power station, the calculations will be less and less in favour of the CF bulb. For now, in Australia, it's probably safe to say that CF bulbs are the better choice in respect to overall mercury emissions.

But the mercury in the bulbs is still a health hazard in your home and a degree of care needs to be taken. Bear in mind that it's exactly the same type of risk that you've been dealing with your entire life when living with regular fluorescent lights - it's only the shape of the bulb which is different.

The simple rule of thumb is that you shouldn't break them. Mercury is most easily absorbed through the lungs. If you do accidentally break one, open up the windows and doors so that the mercury vapour can disperse as widely and quickly as possible (reducing the amount that you and your family will be exposed to). It's probably wise to wear gloves and a mask while cleaning up the broken bits.

Fluorescent bulbs can be recycled safely but only through special processing and they should certainly not be placed in your regular recycling bin.

The Brisbane City Council provides conflicting information regarding the safe disposal of fluorescent bulbs. On the phone they advised me that "household quantities" of fluorescent bulbs may be placed in the regular waste bin (ideally wrapped in newspaper or the original packaging) and that larger quantities are accepted at waste transfer stations. But their website says such bulbs shouldn't be placed in the bin. I'll be seeking a clarification on this, and I would encourage you to contact your councillor (wherever you live) and asking them to ensure that a safe recycling option is made available.

One final comment: Ikea deserves special mention for the fact that you can return your used CF bulbs to them for recycling, but unfortunately they only sell the "Edison screw" type of bulb and not the "bayonet" type which is by far the most common fitting in Australian homes.

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