by Lloyd Alter
Much of the discussion about mercury and fluorescent lightbulbs have been around the compact fluorescent lights, (CFLs) also known as “toxic Gorebulbs.” They had a tiny bit of mercury, about 1 milligram, and many people have replaced them with light emitting diodes (LED) bulbs.
But the real mercury problem is with the long thin fluorescent tubes that are in offices, factories, public spaces, and even in some homes. These have a lot of mercury in them—2 to 8 milligrams in each, averaging 2.7 milligrams—and there are billions of these bulbs still in use. Now a new study published by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP), CLASP, and the Clean Lighting Coalition calls for their phaseout.
Even after LED lights were common, the T8 bulbs (the most common variety, one inch in diameter and four feet long) were not subject to any regulation because they were more efficient and cost-effective than LEDs, but that is no longer true as the LEDs have become cheaper and better.
It’s estimated that 75% of fluorescent bulbs are not recycled properly. The mercury from them eventually ends up in rivers, lakes, and oceans, where it is turned into extremely toxic methylmercury through the action of microbes. This then bio-accumulates in fish and shellfish, which is why seafood is the leading source of human exposure.
While fluorescent bulbs are not the only source of mercury—it is released into the air when coal or gasoline is burned—bulbs remain a major source of metallic mercury, and one now that can be easily eliminated.1 The Clean Lighting Coalition estimates fluorescent lighting represent 9.3-10.3% of total mercury emissions, although the lighting industry says it is considerably less.