Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mercury: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 1

Mercury: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part 1

I'm green.

My green is pale, but it's slowly growing darker. The more green I become, the more I dislike careless use and management of harmful chemicals in our water, food, medicine, and now...our light bulbs.

Dislike is too wimpy. I am growing angry with careless regard for hazardous chemicals.

My lightbulbs contain mercury. Your lightbulbs contain mercury if they are fluorescent, including the new Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFL). They require 75% less energy than regular incandescent light bulbs, and they last up to 10 times longer. My electric utility company gave everyone in Hermiston a free box of ten CFL's. They're great.

But they contain mercury.

I've told you the good: CFL bulbs cost less in the long run and they consume less energy.

Here's the bad:

Mercury, the elemental mercury in the CFL bulbs, can cause:

  • Tremors
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • nervousness
  • Excessive shyness
  • Insomnia
  • Weakness
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Twitching
  • Headaches
  • Alzheimers
  • Autism
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Infertility
  • Vision loss
  • Numbness
  • Learning disabilities
  • Kidney damage
  • Respiratory failure
  • Death

Here's the ugly:

I realize these examples involve larger quantities of mercury, but there is much reason to believe that ANY amount of mercury in the body is harmful.

Thankfully, my CFL bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury, anywhere from 4 to 14 milligrams. One mercury thermometer contains 500 milligrams of mercury.

Low-mercury CFL bulbs contain about 4 milligrams of mercury...about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen. A green cap marks the end of the low-mercury CFL bulbs.

Standard CFL bulbs contain 8 to 14 milligrams of mercury.

Mercury thermometers contain much more mercury: 500 milligrams.

I wandered the aisle at Walmart and found no green-tipped CFL bulbs...they are all the standard bulbs, with 8 to 14 milligrams of mercury in each one.

How much is too much?

Animal testing shows exposure to mercury at levels that are anything above .23 milligrams per kilogram of weight, per day (for more than fourteen days, but less than a year) may cause observable adverse effects.

I weigh 180 pounds (82 kilograms). The No-Observed-Adverse-Effect-Level for me would be about 18 milligrams of mercury. I could expose myself daily to four broken CFL bulbs with no adverse effects.


For a ten-pound baby, the NOAEL would be about 4 milligrams of mercury: one broken CFL bulb.


Let's extrapolate:

I have ten CFL bulbs that will burn out in about five years. Each bulb has 4 milligrams of mercury. (Probably more, but I'll practice the power of positive thinking.)

There are 21,264 households in Hermiston.

In five years, 210,264 CFL bulbs will burn out.

In five years, Hermiston will need to dispose of 841,056 milligrams of mercury.

Next post: What do we do with the burned out CFL bulbs?

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