Columnist Johanna Neumann: Saying ‘farewell’ to fluorescents

Published: 01-25-2023 10:58 AM

How many Americans does it take to change a light bulb? To change one bulb now should only take one of us. However, to change all our bulbs in the coming years will require millions of us — and the best way to initiate that action is through the collective power of government.

Fluorescent light bulbs illuminate our offices, garages and basements, but for public health and environmental reasons, it’s time to replace them with safer, more efficient options.

Lighting technology is evolving

Like many technologies, lighting has improved over time.

Thomas Alva Edison patented the first incandescent bulb in 1880. At the time, these electric lights were a big improvement over candles and oil lamps, but incandescent bulbs wasted a lot of energy through heat and burned out relatively quickly. By the early 2000s, the squiggly compact fluorescent light bulbs (CLFs) were touted as superior to traditional incandescent bulbs because of their durability and efficiency.

CFLs use 75% less energy than traditional incandescent light bulbs. If every home in America replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an efficient CFL, the country would save enough energy annually to light 3 million homes and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from about 800,000 cars. And even though CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, their adoption significantly reduced the amount of mercury put into the environment. Energy savings from CFLs in the early 2000s meant power stations burned less coal, which was the primary source of mercury pollution.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy issued lighting efficiency standards that effectively put incandescent bulbs into our nation’s rear view mirror. Now, America is poised to take the next leap in lighting technology by replacing CFLs with Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs.

LEDs use half the energy of fluorescents and last twice as long. They are readily available to replace fluorescents of all shapes and sizes, have improved in quality and decreased in price. A recent study found that the typical school could save more than $5,000 on its annual utility bills if it replaced all its fluorescent bulbs with LEDs.

And, unlike fluorescents, LEDs don’t contain any mercury.

Why is mercury in lighting a problem?

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Mercury is a potent and persistent neurotoxin that threatens human health and the environment. Exposure to mercury — even small amounts — can cause serious health problems and harm child development. The World Health Organization counts mercury among the 10 most dangerous chemicals impacting public health.

Since all fluorescent bulbs contain mercury by design, they release mercury whenever they are broken. Fluorescent bulbs can break in homes, schools, child care settings, office and apartment buildings, stores, factories, and health care and other facilities, and in our waste stream.

There is no “safe” level of exposure to mercury. When a fluorescent lamp breaks, the clean-up recommendations detailed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are ‘above and beyond’ what many people are aware of and prepared to do. I know I certainly didn’t follow the rigorous protocol of immediate evacuation, ventilating the room for several hours, collecting all contaminated materials in a sealed plastic container, and following local disposal recommendations, when I recently broke a CFL in my bedroom.

And when fluorescent bulbs are not disposed of properly, as happens with an estimated 75% of bulbs, mercury in our waste stream puts sanitation workers at risk of exposure.

Mercury also leaches from landfills and gets burned in incinerators and eventually contaminates rivers, lakes, and oceans and the fish and shellfish within them. Given the availability of better options, it’s time to say “farewell” to fluorescents.

States can lead the way

In 2022, Vermont and California became the first states to phase out the sale of most fluorescent bulbs. Now lawmakers in more states, including Rep. Josh Cutler and Sen. Susan Moran of Massachusetts, are considering action to phase out sales of the most common fluorescent bulbs by 2025. You can urge your state lawmakers to support phasing out fluorescents by taking action here:

The more states act and the more retailers provide safe, efficient alternatives, the greater the chance that the Biden Administration will support an international phase-out of all general-purpose fluorescent lamps by 2025 at the upcoming Fourth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP4) of the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

While it may take more than one person to change a light bulb sometimes, in this case, no matter how many people it takes, it’s worth it.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at]]>