On September 1, the European Union began to enforce a ban on incandescent light bulbs. The response was immediate outcry from thousands of EU citizens who felt the blanket ban was overdone and failed to take into account hazards from compact fluorescent bulbs containing the toxic heavy metal mercury, according to the New York Times.
Nine days later, the furor has failed to subside. Europeans are hoarding still available supplies of incandescent bulbs and the airwaves are lit up with complaints about the Draconian energy saving enforcement measure. Concerns have arisen as to whether the CFLs provide adequate light for people with less than perfect vision. Then there's the worry that mercury in CFLs represents a major environmental risk.
All told, what once looked like a slam dunk green-friendly measure is turning into a serious brouhaha over paternalistic government interference and enforced adoption of a technology that many believe has major long-term safety issues.
Energy bean counters have long pointed to incandescent lights as a primary source of electricity waste in the world. CFLs use between one-third and one-fifth the energy of incandescents and can conserve 2,000 times their weight in greenhouse gases over a bulb's lifespan. Also, CFLs tend to burn much longer than incandescents, meaning a single CFL can replace five or more traditional bulbs. Newer CFLs have been created with chemical formulas and glass shadings that better mimic the soft light of beloved incandescents.
But many die-hard tree huggers are wary of embracing these energy sipping glass orbs. That's because CFLs are made with small amounts of mercury, a highly toxic material that is now omnipresent in U.S. streams and seafood. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 670 million fluorescent light bulbs are tossed each year in the United States. These cast-off bulbs may emit between 2 to 4 tons of mercury into the environment each year.
Mercury is considered particularly damaging to the young and to fetuses, who can suffer brain damage from exposure to even small amounts of the red, liquid metal. Broken bulbs in a home, some detractors allege, can release enough contaminants to possibly result in moderate harm to young children who might ingest it.
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End-of-life concerns for CFLs are not the only mercury issue related to the bulbs. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese workers may have suffered mercury poisoning in plants where CFLs are manufactured, reported the Times of London. Despite the furor, the EU is pushing forward with plans for bans on other types of light bulbs, according to the Daily Telegraph. These include spotlights and halogen lights. And in the U.S., the government is targeting 2014 for rolling out its own ban on incandescent bulbs.
The energy savings of a forced march to CFLs will certainly be significant. With more robust disposal programs, perhaps the CFL fanaticism would work out quite fine. But if the the current programs are left intact, the ultimate costs of forcing everyone to use CFLs, however, could be borne by a younger, defenseless generation.