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I-Team Report: Shedding light

October 6, 2009 5:02:09 AM PDT
ABC7's Chuck Goudie is "shedding light" on the popular, new light bulbs that are touted as green and energy-efficient and how they could be a danger to the people who use them and to the environment. The bulbs are compact fluorescent light bulbs, also called CFLs, and they are known to use 75 percent less energy. They also last 10 times longer than traditional bulbs.

What many people don't know is that the CFLs contain mercury, a poison especially dangerous to pregnant women and young children.

This is what the federal government says consumers should do if they accidentally break one:

"Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the area. We must evacuate the room. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more. Shut off the central heating and air conditioning system. Carefully scoop up the glass fragments or powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with a metal lid," said Texas Congressman Ted Poe, who was holding up a bulb during a congressional gathering.

If Poe had broken one of them, the House of Representatives would have had to be evacuated, according to EPA guidelines.

CFLs have become symbolic of the push to "go green." Incandescent bulbs could soon be a thing of the past as the government mandates light bulbs be 25 percent more efficient by the year 2012.

But each CFL bulb contains a small amount of mercury.

"Mercury is a neurotoxin, which means it gets into the developing brain of a young child or fetus and can cause developmental delays and other neurological problems," said Jonathan Goldman of the Illinois Environmental Council.

If a CFL bulb breaks, the mercury is released. Even if you were to follow the EPA's tedious protocol to clean up a broken bulb, tests by environmental authorities show higher than recommended levels of the toxin remain.

The fear is, that when hundreds of millions of CFL bulbs now in use burn out, most consumers will just throw them away, exposing them, their families, and eventually the environment, to a real danger.

"When you look at them collectively, they begin to have a real impact. And when they're disposed of in a landfill or if they go to some type of waste incinerator, that mercury can leak out into the environment," Goldman said.

Kevin Schnoes, of the Chicago Department of Environment, says the city is trying to spread the word on what to do with used CFLs so they don't end up contaminating our landfills.

"Here at this facility, we'll take both the unbroken and broken bulbs, they'll get packaged and sent for recycling," he said of the Household Chemical and Computer Recycling Center.

The center is located on the city's North Side. It opened two years ago. Drop-offs are accepted twice a week.

Once the bulbs leave the center, they are taken to a facility near Milwaukee.

"The mercury is captured so the bad stuff that's still in there gets captured and not emitted to the atmosphere, and that stuff actually gets reused and recycled," Schnoes said.

Home Depot, Ikea and a number of Ace hardware stores will also take used bulbs for recycling.

Last year, one out of five light bulbs sold in the U.S. was a CFL, and that number is increasing. But almost all are manufactured outside of the U.S.

"This light bulb, it says right here, with all the warnings on it, is made in China," said Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Texas.

That means the bulbs travel 8,000 miles to get to the United States, which hardly seems "energy efficient."

Plus, toxins are released during the production of CFLs, adding more pollution to China's already dirty air. That leads to this question: Does "green" always equal good?

"As environmentalists, we wind up in a little bit of a quandary because we're saying on one hand, use these bulbs because they're energy efficient, on the other hand we're concerned about the mercury in them," said Goldman.

Every bulb the ABC7 I-Team looked at, by every manufacturer, was made in China. Wednesday, one company, Philips, told ABC7 they do make a very small number of CFLs in the U.S. and Poland.

The Illinois Environmental Council says it is working with more retailers to expand consumer recycling options.

For more information:

Texas Rep. Poe's speak on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-LOtKIIKcg.

Also:

http://www.epa.gov/mercury/spills/index.htm#flourescent

http://www.maine.gov/dep/rwm/homeowner/cflreport.htm

City of Chicago Disposal Information: http://egov.cityofchicago.org/

http://www.ilenviro.org/

http://www.maine.gov/dep/rwm/homeowner/cflreport.htm

http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5920


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