Living Columns & Blogs

Let there be light

We all make a thousand choices about the energy we use each day, and we pay for each decision we make.

Some choices have big consequences, such as living close to work or putting a woodstove into the living room. One smaller choice we consumers confront more frequently is what light bulbs we buy, a matter that can affect a good percentage of our electric bill.

The spiral-shaped compact fluorescent bulbs use less electricity than the incandescent bulbs we grew up with. That saves you money on your power bill, and it also means less carbon dioxide is added to the planet’s atmosphere from power plants.

The new bulbs recently caught the attention of Congress. The upshot is that federal law will require us to switch away from standard light bulbs to compact fluorescents by 2012. Before we get to that deadline, there are a couple of things you’ll want to know.

Compact fluorescent bulbs create light by making mercury gas within them fluoresce. As older readers will remember, thermometers had mercury in them 40 years ago. Mercury was the silver liquid that rose and fell in the thermometer, registering the temperature of a feverish child.

Mercury is a well-known neurotoxin. In fact, there’s an old phrase that reminds us of that fact. Mercury was once used in the processing of fur pelts that made hats, so people who worked in the hat-making industry were exposed to a lot of mercury. And it was mercury’s clear and strong effects that led to the phrase “mad as a hatter,” as well as to the character you’ll recall as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.

If you break a compact fluorescent bulb, either when you drop it or toss it into a recycling bin, mercury vapor wafts into the air. Here are the federal recommendations for what to do if you break a bulb indoors.

1. Open a window and evacuate the room “for 15 minutes or more”

2. On a hard surface: using gloves, scoop up fragments of the bulb and powder and put into a sealed plastic bag; wipe the area with damp paper towels and put them into the bag

3. On a carpet: using gloves, scoop up fragments of the bulb and power and put into a sealed plastic bag; press sticky tape, such as duct tape, into the carpet to remove more material, and add the tape to the bag; vacuum the area; remove the vacuum bag from the device and put it the sealed bag; wipe down the vacuum with damp clothes and put them into the sealed bag

4. Put your sealed bag into another bag, creating a doubly-sealed bag.

5. If your local laws allow it, put the materials into the trash.

6. Wash your hands with soap and water.

On the upside, a compact fluorescent bulb contains only about 10-20 milligrams of mercury. For reference, an old thermometer contains 500 to 2,500 milligrams depending on its internal size. (Note: some of us geezers broke the old-style thermometers when we were young, played with the mercury on our palms, and lived to tell the tale. But maybe that experience accounts for our peculiar thoughts?)

Although the compact fluorescents are supposed to be recycled -- without breakage -- many of the bulbs, in fact, head to landfills where they are crushed. Although the amount of mercury in each bulb is small, the number of such bulbs in the U.S. is now staggering and still headed north.

Another concern is that bulbs are almost all manufactured in China, where industrial hygiene standards are not always the best, and workers may become more like the hatters of old than we consumers ever shall be.

The good news is that the next-generation of lights are on the way in the form of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). The tiny bulbs can be even more efficient than compact fluorescents.

Here’s hoping LEDs can help us reduce our electric bills without promoting effects worthy of Alice in Wonderland.

* E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but she was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Questions about science for future Rock Docs can be sent to This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.