Spiral tubular compact fluorescent lamps or light bulbs have been used increasingly in the past 10 years while the more familiar long tubular fluorescent lights have been a common fixture in homes and businesses for 50 years. The appeal and benefit of fluorescent bulbs is bright soft light which uses 75 percent less energy and has a useful life 10 times longer than the 130-year-old incandescent light bulb.
Since 75- and 100-watt incandescent bulbs were removed from the market last year and 40- and 60-watt bulbs will be removed in 2014, CFL and tubular lamps along with new LED bulbs will be the only light bulbs available due to the United States government policy directed at reducing energy consumption.
Fluorescent light bulbs contain the toxic element, mercury (Hg), which the United States Environmental Protection Agency designates as hazardous waste but they are safe to use.
Mercury, a silver colored liquid metal at room temperature, has many common uses such as in older fever thermometers. The key to CFL use will be recycling the bulbs to keep them out of landfills because mercury will wash out of broken glass bulbs to enter streams, lakes and eventually oceans adding to mercury already present in the environment from burning coal and from volcanoes. Environmental bacteria absorb mercury in the water, then are eaten by larger organisms accumulating and concentrating mercury up the food chain primarily ending in ocean fish such as swordfish, mackerel and albacore tuna. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, women trying to become pregnant and young children should avoid eating these fish.
Currently disposal procedures for fluorescent bulbs are left to the states but mandatory recycling remains to be instituted.
Presently, CFL and 4-foot-long fluorescent bulbs are accepted for recycling at home remodeling chain department stores. Commercial recycling centers recover glass, mercury and metal to reuse in new lamps.
The history of fluorescent light technology dates back 100 years but, the incandescent light bulb predominated since it was cheap, produced bright light and was inexpensive to use when electricity was also cheap. The incandescent light bulb produces bright light when electricity heats a wire filament white hot inside the glass bulb. By contrast, the fluorescent lamp functions by passing a small electric current, which vaporizes mercury, inside the tube. Ultraviolet light is given off by the energized or vaporized mercury which causes a chemical powder adherent to the glass to fluoresce brightly.
The lamp is so efficient that 75 percent less electricity is used to produce the same amount or lumens of light from a comparable size incandescent light bulb. Unfortunately, the fluorescent bulb may cost 25 times more but it will last 10 times longer so in the long run savings will be substantially more than using multiple incandescent light bulbs. The CFL package states "if every household in the United States replaced the five most used light bulbs with CFL, there would be $8 billion saved in energy costs and prevent greenhouse gases equal to emissions from nearly 10 million cars."
"Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine" states mercury toxicity is manifested by central nervous system symptoms of memory loss, deliriums, and tingling of the toes and fingers. More acute intoxication from industrial exposure or from exposure to multiple broken fluorescent bulbs can cause kidney damage, hypertension and lung edema. Mercury inactivates several vital enzyme processes. Treatment for acute mercury ingestion or inhalation requires medication to inactivate mercury in the body.
As a youth my father, a high school physics teacher, brought home mercury in a vial for my sister and me to play with. Due to mercury toxicity, today schools are prohibited from purchasing mercury. Even today blood pressure gauges no longer use liquid mercury even though a blood pressure of 120/70 is measured in millimeters of mercury.
Expect "sticker shock" when purchasing CFL, but over the years, money will be saved from reduced electricity use and replacement costs. Responsible disposal by authorized recycling programs will be crucial for the overall safety and success of conversion to mercury containing fluorescent light bulbs.