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Thursday, January 12

CFLs - Helpful or Harmful? A humble telling.

Part 1.

Monday, I had some grand plans. I was going to organize my daughter's rooms. Hah. Well, with my two and a half year old in tow, that plan had zero chance of coming to fruition. What can I say... I'm an eternal optimist. What did happen though, was a stop to the store to pick up some light bulbs & storage bins. And that would be the extent of my Monday organizing extravaganza: purchasing the bins. Score me 1 point.
Score:  Kim - 1, Monday - 0. 

When we got home, I promptly opened my reusable shopping bag (+1 pt) and went upstairs to install the light bulb McKenna and I had selected for big sister Addison's new sparkly bedroom light. I was so proud of myself for finding a small-enough CFL bulb to fit in this tiny light socket (+1 pt). I patted myself on the back for a job well done, and continued on to replace other bulbs. Mother Earth would be so proud. Errand #1 was complete (+1 pt).  Add 3 points.
Score:  Kim - 4, Monday - 0. 

That's a pretty good score! That is, until I heard the words "Here go, mama." Because unfortunately, this meant that I dropped the ball, and the game's momentum had shifted. To be precise, I didn't drop the ball, my 2 year old did (Monday - 1 pt ). And it wasn't a ball. It was the old CFL bulb that had been slated for disposal (Monday - 1 pt). I had turned my back for a second, and McKenna was joyfully bringing me the bulb I left on the bathroom counter. And just then, she tripped over the dog (Monday - 1 pt). As if in slow motion, I watched the bulb fly out of her hands, but couldn't get there in time. It hit the carpet and bounced out the door into the hallway... the hardwood-floored hallway. And for a second I quit breathing. What do I do if this bulb breaks? How hazardous is it? Will we/she get sick? How do I get it out of here? OMG, How could I let her near that thing! Get it out of my house! The thoughts kept coming like a waterfall. Meanwhile, the bulb hit the ground and slid across the floor toward the wall, and slammed into it. Somehow, it did not break. But, whoa that was close! 
Score:  Kim - 4, Monday - 3

Getting the point

Since then, I've taken the time to try to answer those questions I had about CFLs & their hazard risk. I'm not speaking of their energy efficiency. I'd have to be living under a rock to not be aware that they are, indeed, saving energy. In fact, if everyone in the US converted to CFL bulbs tomorrow, we could shut down 80 coal-burning power plants. So that is definitely a huge stride towards energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gasses. 

It was specifically the mercury I was concerned about. And that concern was due to ignorance. I just didn't know exactly how harmful that bulb could be to us, and it never occurred to me to find out. That is, until it was flying through the air.  

The result? Yes, these bulbs contain mercury - about 4 mg for your average bulb. And yes, improper handling or breakage could lead to mercury poisoning if not disposed of properly. But, to put it into perspective - you would need 125 CFL bulbs to equal the same amount of mercury in one old-school fever thermometer (500 mg). Though, since
many families now use digital thermometers which do not contain mercury, it's a fairly modest trade-off. Compare that to the plants that can be shut down by nationwide use of CFL bulbs and therefore reducing the single largest source of human-caused mercury emissions in the United States - coal-burning power plants.  So on paper, it's a pretty good deal.  Not to mention the well-known perks like lower energy costs & longer life span.  There is an added step to disposal as you need to follow proper guidelines. Chances are, your Home Depot and Ikea locations will recycle them for you as well. Recycling them has the added benefit allowing the reuse of the bulb parts and glass. Overall, CFL bulbs seem like a win-win.  But are they really? What are the long term effects on us? What about off-gassing?  That will come next in Part 2

So, maybe I was wrong - maybe they are safe? I'll be woman enough to admit it if I am. For now, I still win by a point. Monday was good day. Though, now it's Thursday and I'm still not done organizing.

*Please always take caution when using or handling any product containing mercury.*  Note to self: this includes preventing children to handle CFL lightbulbs.

Here are some related links if you want to read more.

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