If you’ve ever gone shopping for energy-efficient light bulbs, you’ve probably come across mercury light bulbs.
Known more commonly as compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), mercury light bulbs look like two white tubes coiled around one another. They’re essentially smaller versions of fluorescent light tubes that are widely used in offices and supermarkets.
Despite their popularity, the mercury content in these light bulbs has raised concerns about the hazards they could pose to humans and the environment. But there’s no need to worry – environmental experts say that the amount of mercury in these light bulbs is so low that they are unlikely to cause any problems as long as they are intact.
What are mercury light bulbs?
The mercury light bulb, or compact fluorescent light bulb, is a white-colored gas-filled light bulb invented by Edward Hammer, a scientist at General Electric, in 1976. Hammer was tasked with creating an energy-efficient light bulb to help Americans weather the effects of the 1970s energy crisis.
Although Hammer finished designing the mercury light bulb by the end of the 1970s, it was shelved by General Electric because of its high manufacturing costs. It wasn’t until the 1990s that CFLs became mass-produced by other companies.
Today, mercury light bulbs can be found on store shelves in the energy-efficient light bulbs section. They’re said to be 75 percent more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs, which produce light when a wire filament is heated to high temperatures.
CFLs are made using a glass tube that’s coated on the inside with phosphor and filled with argon and a small amount of mercury vapor. When an electric current is sent through the tube, the gases react, emitting an invisible ultraviolet light that is absorbed by the phosphor coating and gets cast out as visible light.
Some scientific studies suggest that the reduced energy demands of CFLs decrease the amount of mercury that coal power plants emit. It’s believed that if every home in America switched one incandescent light bulb to a CFL, greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from about 800,000 cars could be prevented.
But the higher efficiency comes with a price. CFLs are usually sold at about six times the price of incandescent bulbs. The high price could be justified as CFLs can help homeowners save between $30 to $100 on energy costs over several years.
Is there less mercury in modern light bulbs now than in the past?
Quite a few modern light bulbs use more mercury than light bulbs of the past. CFLs, fluorescent tube lights, mercury vapor bulbs, and high-pressure sodium bulbs are some of the modern light bulbs that have a mercury content of more than 3mg.
CFLs contain 3 to 4mg of mercury while incandescent light bulbs invented by Thomas Edison in 1879 contain none. Halogen bulbs – invented by General Electric and the precursor to CFLs – contain no traces of mercury, only halogen gas.
Among modern light bulbs, CFLs contain the lowest amount of mercury. Fluorescent tube lights, which are the longer versions of CFLs, have about 100mg of mercury in them.
Mercury vapor bulbs and high-pressure sodium bulbs used in streetlights, industrial lighting, and floodlights contain between 10mg and 100mg of mercury.
Although CFLs have a relatively low mercury content, they do not produce as much mercury pollution as incandescent bulbs as a result of their cost-effective design. Incandescent bulbs use a lot of electricity, which mostly still come from coal-fired power plants. These plants are estimated to emit about 50 tonnes of elemental mercury each year according to estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Are mercury light bulbs bad for the environment?
While mercury light bulbs pose very little risk to the environment when they are in use, improper disposal of these bulbs, especially in large amounts, can lead to some serious environmental hazards.
Mercury is a harmful neurotoxin that can persist in the soil and bodies of water for years. When released into the environment, it can be absorbed by water-borne bacteria that turn it into a very poisonous liquid form of mercury called methylmercury. Methylmercury can accumulate in fish and the animals that eat them, including humans.
In the past century, concentrations of mercury in our atmosphere and oceans have increased by around 300 percent. The EPA estimates that 600 million fluorescent lamps are inappropriately sent to U.S. landfills each year amount to about 30,000 pounds of mercury waste. This is in addition to the 70,000 pounds of mercury emitted by incinerators across the nation.
While light bulbs that contain mercury are considered by the EPA as hazardous substances, the mercury content in a single bulb is small and unlikely to harm the environment if it were to break.
More than that, the European Commission Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER) considers mercury light bulbs to offer a higher environmental benefit than incandescent and halogen light bulbs as they consume less energy over their lifetime.
This however doesn’t mean that mercury light bulbs can be thrown into the general waste bin. Many municipalities across the U.S. require CFLs to be thrown into the hazardous waste bin as per the EPA’s guidelines.
Can mercury light bulbs be recycled?
Mercury light bulbs can indeed be recycled. The glass, metal, and mercury can be reclaimed and reused to make other materials. Recyclers often crush the glass and add it to sandblasting material while metals get melted down and turned into parts for other devices.
Even the mercury is collected and used in new light bulbs or medical imaging equipment.
The EPA considers recycling as the safest disposal method for all light bulbs containing mercury. Some states and local jurisdictions go as far as requiring recycling for CFLs and other mercury light bulbs.
It’s known that California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington all have regulations requiring their people to send used or broken mercury light bulbs to a local waste collection agency or a collection facility.
For people living or working in areas that have hardware stores like IKEA or Home Depot with recycling collection points, used CFLs can be dropped off there. Others who live in more remote areas may be able to mail used mercury light bulbs back to the manufacturer.
For building and facilities managers who need to discard hundreds of CFL bulbs, a better option will be to call a professional hazardous waste recycler who can come to the premises to collect bulk pick-ups of fluorescent bulbs.
Recycling prevents harmful mercury from contaminating the environment. It also allows the mercury and other parts of the light bulbs to be repurposed for other items.
Other kinds of light bulbs to investing in
Besides traditional mercury light bulbs, there are other kinds of light bulbs with similar levels of brightness and energy efficiency qualities to invest in.
ClearLite’s ArmorLite bulb
ClearLite’s ArmorLite bulb is an upgrade to the traditional CFL bulb. It’s similar in construction to a regular CFL bulb, except that it has a protective silicone skin covering the glass tubes. This skin prevents the poisonous mercury from escaping into the home or environment if the bulb breaks.
Besides, the ArmorLite bulb uses an innovative solid alloy of mercury and other metals that replaces most of the liquid and gaseous mercury used in traditional CFL models. The alloy reduces the amount of mercury that’s needed to produce light.
Halogen bulbs give off a bright light the second they’re turned on and are fully dimmable. They’re made using a tungsten filament and a glass body that’s filled with halogen, and sometimes xenon, gas, which extend the life of the filament.
Although halogen bulbs are up to 20 percent more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs, they cannot compete with LED bulbs, which can last 8 to 25 times longer than them. Despite this slight disadvantage, halogen light bulbs perform well as overhead lights thanks to their dimmable quality.
Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs
Light-emitting diodes or LEDs are considered by many environmental experts to be the most energy-efficient and cost-effective light bulbs on the market.
They contain no mercury at all and can last up to 50,000 hours of use, which is five times longer than CFL bulbs. Plus, LED bulbs have been estimated to use about 75 percent less energy than CFL bulbs.
The U.S. Department of Energy believes that the low energy consumption of LED bulbs could significantly reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere if all households and businesses switched to using them. And because LED bulbs don’t contain mercury, they pose a lower risk to humans and the environment if they break or are improperly disposed of.
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