What in the world does one of these things have to do with the other? Let me explain the connection. We all grew up hearing you can “fight fire with fire.” A “firebreak” results from a deliberately set and controlled fire that burns up all the fuel (brush, kindling, etc.) in the way of an approaching, uncontrolled fire. A burned-over area with no fuel left protects humans, homes and other property from the more dangerous uncontrolled fire.
The firebreak concept explains why the Evangelical Environmental Network recommends compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) (with dozens of other energy efficiency technologies and strategies) in its stewardship campaigns for creation care and against mercury emissions, which can poison unborn and young children. You see, those highly efficient and cost-effective CFLs contain a tiny amount of mercury vapor (which glows brightly to create light when electrified within the bulb), yet the more we use CFLs to replace inefficient, old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs—so we can burn less coal—the less mercury enters our air, water, soil and food. How can this be?
Back to the “fighting fire with fire” concept. The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for which protecting human health is its primary mission, estimates that about 103 metric tons of mercury are released in the United States annually. More than half of these emissions come from burning coal to generate electricity, the main way that mercury gets into our air, water and fish. Most fish can be healthy to eat, but some are not. Young children and the unborn, especially, are vulnerable to mercury poisoning.
CFLs contain about 4 milligrams (mg) of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. (By comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 mg of mercury, or 125 times that of a CFL.) No mercury is released when CFLs are in use or recycled unbroken. Technology advances and a commitment by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association have dropped the average mercury content in CFLs at least 20% in recent years. Some manufacturers have reduced mercury content to 1 mg per CFL.
However, coal-fired power plant emissions account for about 858 times more mercury than the “worst case” from CFLs. The key fact is that CFLs use less electricity than incandescent bulbs, meaning CFLs reduce mercury emissions overall by reducing coal burning. Specifically, a 13-watt, 8,000-hour-rated-life CFL (the common 60-watt equivalent) will save 376 kWh over its lifetime, preventing a net 4.3 mg of mercury. A CFL sent to landfill drops overall emissions a little, to 3.9 mg. Furthermore, if CFLs are recycled (at The Home Depot or other recyclers found at www.Earth911.org), virtually all the mercury in CFLs could be contained.
Energy Star promotes energy efficiency, and the EPA is working to require electric utilities to do better at preventing power plant mercury emissions, while the Evangelical Environmental Network supports the EPA’s effort. Learn more about the Evangelical Environmental Network’s creation care and mercury reduction campaigns at www.creationcare.org, and learn the facts about mercury at http://www.epa.gov/mercury/. For more on CFLs, recycling them and more ways to prevent pollution with energy efficiency, visit www.energystar.gov/cfls