Not such a bright idea

Looking at compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), it becomes clear that they are no ordinary lights. Unlike their old-school incandescent counterparts, they aren’t bulbous, but are instead tubular and sculpted into a swirl.

Inside of its enchanting shape, however, it’s hard to guess that a powerful neurotoxin is trapped within: mercury.

Despite this toxin, the CFLs are all the rage. Boasting up to an 11-year lifespan and the ability to significantly reduce energy costs and usage, everyone, including Albion students and staff, seems to be screwing into the CFL socket.

On Tuesday, March 17, Albion’s environmental institute, sustainability council and Student Senate hosted the Step Into Sustainability fair. With 14 booths run by volunteers, the evening focused on making sustainability and eco-friendly behavior available to students and applicable to a dorm-room setting, according to Bekah McCafferty, event coordinator and Portland senior.

It was not the vegetarian taste-testing booth nor the tap vs. bottled water booth that caught my eye, though. It was the table set up with boxes of CFLs, free for the taking. There was no other information, no sign, and when I was there, not even a person sitting behind that booth– just boxes of light bulbs boasting things like, “SAVE $92 in energy costs” and “Smaller. Brighter. Greener.”

Grabbing one, I was pretty psyched. Of course I wanted to save energy and have a bulb last me 11 years! It wasn’t until my own curiosity drove me to, listed on the box, and I hit the link (almost dubiously) labeled “Recycling” that “Mercury Containing Light Bulb (Lamp),” popped up from an EPA Web site and informed me of my potentially harmful bulb.

As it turns out, most CFLs contain around 4 milligrams of mercury, or enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. While this doesn’t seem like a large amount, it is enough to require special procedures for disposal (or “recycling”). Currently, Albion does not have a system in place for dealing with burnt-out mercury-containing lights, and the closest disposal center is at the Home Depot in Jackson, where employees will take the bulbs off of your hands for free and get rid of them in the safest and most eco-friendly manner.

And again, while 4 milligrams of mercury doesn’t seem like a lot, a broken light can mean a lot of contamination. As a neurotoxin, mercury has been linked to everything from emotional changes to kidney or brain failure, when one is exposed to it in high enough concentrations.

Regarding its presence in CFLs, the internet is riddled with stories of individuals who broke a bulb and now have higher-than-safe levels of mercury in their homes – one woman had to seal off her daughter’s room because she can’t pay to have it professionally cleaned.

The EPA has even designated special guidelines to follow if your light is broken, and the procedures, found on its Web site, are not to be taken lightly. The first few steps include clearing the room of everything living, opening windows and turning off central heating or cooling units (which obviously cannot be done in a dorm room) for at least 15 minutes. Sweeping or vacuuming is a no-no, as it could throw mercury particles into the air, and the broken bits are instead supposed to be scooped into a plastic bag.

While it can’t be disputed that these tubular bulbs save a ton of energy, it also can’t be disputed that their toxic content should be announced clearly. With the green fair past, how many students now have CFLs in their dorm rooms? And more importantly, how many of them would either have broken them or would have just thrown them into the garbage come the end of the year, putting not only themselves, but also the Albion College employees who handle their trash, at serious risk?

While it’s great to be green, next time we have a fair for the cause, let’s do our research.


  1. I would like to argue that the organizations handing out CFLs did, in fact, do their research.

    Yes, the bulbs contain mercury, but if it’s mercury that scares you, I would advise you to refrain from using electricity or consuming fish. You see, coal-fired power plants (including those in the US) send (literally) tons of mercury vapors into the air per year. These vapors can travel for hundreds of miles, then settle and bioaccumulate in the fish you eat. Since CFLs are more energy-efficient and don’t cause mercury to become airborne, using CFLs could reduce mercury pollution from coal-burning plants if they became commonplace.

    Compact florescent contain somewhere around 5 milligrams of mercury. Compared to the amount of mercury vapor released by your everyday electricity use (assuming your electricity is generated from a coal power plant) this is much lower. Plus, it’s not airborne and won’t ever be unless you break your bulb and let it sit there.

    National Geographic has a great article that clears up a lot of misconceptions. I encourage you to read it:

  2. lis — you’ve got to be kidding at least a little.

    Prior knowledge: Incandescent bulb typically has 1000 hour of illumination. Compact has about 10,000 hour of illumination. 0.060 kW for an incandescent bulb is roughly equal light output to 0.011 kW for a compact

    Overall Lifetime Costs

    Incandescent Bulbs
    Purchase cost: 10 bulbs x 30¢each = $3.00
    Energy cost: .060 kW x 10,000 hr x $0.07/kWh = $42
    Total Cost: $45

    Compact Fluorescent
    Purchase cost: $2.50
    Energy cost: 0.011 kW x 10,000 hr x $0.07/kWh = $7.7
    Total cost = $10.20

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