What’s left to say about CFLs? Plenty.

In the last couple of days, the entire pre-ordained world of politics has been turned upside down following word of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s filing of a bill to delay the phase-out of the manufacture of incandescent bulbs.

Republicans and conservatives are arguing against the environmental impact of CFL, while traditional Democratic and liberal constituencies are saying, “it’s not that bad.” Down is up. Up is down.

To be sure, most of Bachmann’s arguments against CFL light bulbs are moot. Most of what she’s asking for in the way of research and studies was already readily available. But there are two areas where her points — oh, geez, I can hear the blogs now — have merit.

-1- There is an environmental concern with CFLs to at least consider.

-2- For some people, CFLs are a health risk.

Let’s take the second one first, but only because I’ve already written about it here. In the U.K., there’s a phase-out of incandescents. I wrote about it January, long before the millions of you discovered News Cut.

The bulbs are suspected to cause migraines and there’s at least some research that suggests they could contribute to an epileptic attack. In the UK, the BBC reported way back when, some groups are asking that the government still allow incandescents to be sold because of this.

As for number one, yes, there is mercury in CFLs and, no, it can’t be disregarded out of hand. According to the EPA, there are 5 milligrams of mercury in every CFL. According to a story last month by National Public Radio, General Electric says it could be a problem if the CFLs are used on a wide scale, even though manufacturers have reduced mercury content by 87 percent, according to one trade group.

For the record, mercury is also in your car’s HID lamps, streetlights, and the computer monitor on which you’re reading this.

Still, if the concern over the coming phase-out is really the mercury involved in light bulbs, then the CFL still wins out. Popular Mechanics got at this issue in an article last year, which tends to turn the mercury anti-CFL argument on its head.


About 50 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. is generated by coal-fired power plants. When coal burns to produce electricity, mercury naturally contained in the coal releases into the air. In 2006, coal-fired power plants produced 1,971 billion kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity, emitting 50.7 tons of mercury into the air–the equivalent amount of mercury contained in more than 9 billion CFLs (the bulbs emit zero mercury when in use or being handled).

Approximately 0.0234 mg of mercury–plus carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide–releases into the air per 1 kwh of electricity that a coal-fired power plant generates. Over the 7500-hour average range of one CFL, then, a plant will emit 13.16 mg of mercury to sustain a 75-watt incandescent bulb but only 3.51 mg of mercury to sustain a 20-watt CFL (the lightning equivalent of a 75-watt traditional bulb). Even if the mercury contained in a CFL was directly released into the atmosphere, an incandescent would still contribute 4.65 more milligrams of mercury into the environment over its lifetime.

CFLs should be disposed of at a county hazardous waste site. The problem is that they often don’t make it there. They break while people are changing them or throwing them out. You can find cleanup suggestions here.

The brouhaha the story has caused is fascinating. Overall, the issue has been stretched a bit too tight to fit a political argument. It’s not always a bad thing if government steps in to dictate a standard in the public interest. And, in the most honest moments, most people understand that. Otherwise, there’d be a bigger clamor for the right to buy toys painted with lead.