Environmental Trade-offs: Those Cute and Curly Light Bulbs

When we moved from the lake to our new house in the country, one of the first things I did was go around and change over every light bulb in the place to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLS). CFLs look like a Dr. Seussian solution to lighting, but in reality they are taking a big bite out of electricity use. They are very energy efficient, and are a perfect example of real world green technology that is here right now.

They do have one drawback, which is the Whoville sized amounts of mercury that makes those cute little puppies tick (or glow as the case may be). I recently wrote an article for Environmental Health Perspectives about efforts to understand the mercury in CFLS and better ways to capture it in case bulbs break.

Long and the curly of it, open a window and leave the room where the CFL breaks. When you come back pick up everything you can and put it in a glass jar (plastic bags leak mercury), plus try to have kids or pregnant women avoid the room.


2 thoughts on “Environmental Trade-offs: Those Cute and Curly Light Bulbs

  1. what many people don’t explain when talking about mercury in CFLs is that the amount of mercury in a CFL is tiny and contained.

    Incandescent bulbs, because they use more power than CFLs put mercury into the air, which is much worse than a small amount of mercury contained within a CFL bulb.

    why? most of the electricity generated in the US if from coal burning power plants, and when coal is burned, mercury is released into the air. The mercury then falls into the oceans, where fish absorb it, then we absorb it when we eat fish.

    you can learn more about this in the CFL episode of Real World Green, here is the link:


    thx, eric. realworldgreen.com

  2. Great point, and one which I address right away in my article.

    Here’s an excerpt from the second paragraph in my EHP article:
    “According to a June 2008 fact sheet issued by the EPA Energy Star program, the use of CFLs results in a net reduction in mercury entering the environment because their lower energy draw means less mercury-emitting coal needs to be burned. The EPA estimates that using a 13-W CFL saves 376 kWh over its 8,000-hour lifespan, preventing 4.5 mg of mercury from being emitted by a coal-burning power plant. Each small, curly tube contains about 3–5 mg of mercury—significantly less than the 500 mg in older thermometers, but enough that environmental and human health concerns remain.”

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