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Mercury in light bulbs

Monday, December 29, 2008

I am a careful shopper.  Very careful.  Unlike most Americans, I read labels -- even the fine print on my shampoo that says what type of preservative they are using. Heck, it's what I do for a living here at EWG.  But this summer I learned about something that I missed.  The fancy dimmable compact fluorescent lights that I special ordered for $20/each contain mercury.

And I have a pregnant wife and three year old in the house.


Mercury, the neurotoxin that keeps my wife from eating tuna fish

is in my house

on every ceiling.

Of course I did what all of you do -- I googled "mercury in CFLs."  I found out that the amazing energy savings I get from CFLs is all because of mercury.  Without mercury the bulbs don't work.  And the mercury stays in the bulb unless it's broken.  So I calmed down when I found out that it's "just a small dot of mercury, about the size of a pen tip."

Until I dug further.  (Again, it's what I get paid to do.)

I learned that lots of consumers knew about the mercury a long time before I did.  And they had been putting pressure on the manufacturers to lower the mercury content for quite some time now.  And some companies were making bulbs with less mercury to appease these nosy consumers.

But they still make some high mercury bulbs and unleash them on unknowing consumers.

The industry got together and decided to cap the mercury content at 5 milligrams per bulb.  Sound good, right?  Well, a year later the Energy Star program decided to act on mercury by setting the limit at -- wait for it -- 5 milligrams per bulb.  That's right, our government simply rubber stamped the industry's green washing program.  You see, the industry set the limit at 5 milligrams because that's what they were already using.  And in Europe they can't sell anything over 4mg - at all.

Lucky for us, Wal-Mart stepped up to the plate and demanded that their CFL suppliers use less mercury.  (I know, I was just as shocked that Wal-Mart cares more than the government.)  Anyhow, Wal-Mart forced their suppliers to drop the level to 3.2 milligrams per bulb.

But shouldn't our government be more protective than Wal-Mart?

But I kept digging.

Remember how I said some manufacturers wanted to appease the concerned consumer?  Well some bulb manufacturers figured out how to make a good bulb with about 1 milligram of mercury.

1/5 of the mercury.

And if you're lucky enough to read the fine print and ask questions, you can find these bulbs too.

And they work well too.  I have been using some of the Earthmate bulbs that have low mercury.  (Watch out because Earthmate also makes some with high mercury levels.)  I got lucky on the mercury.  Heck, I didn't even know there was mercury in the bulbs when I bought them.  I just thought they had cool packaging.  But they are some of the best CFLs I have in my house.  The come on quickly and provide great light.

You can read about the conclusion of this digging in our new report "A Few Good Bulbs."

And join me in writing to Energy Star to demand stronger mercury standards.