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Bulbs pose environmental risk

January 13, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Amid a torrent of customer backlash against a new energy conservation surcharge, some pollution experts are saying the charge wasn't the only factor Allegheny Power officials didn't think through before mailing out 440,000 energy-efficient light bulbs.

Without a convenient drop-off point or mail-in program for the used bulbs, many of them will end up in local landfills, where the release of the toxic mercury they contain could diminish the environmental gains associated with conserving energy, said Michael Bender, director of the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project, a public-interest organization that aims to reduce mercury pollution.

That's especially true in Washington County, which offers neither recycling nor hazardous-waste disposal options for compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs, according to Harvey Hoch, county recycling coordinator.

A disposal fact sheet from Allegheny Power provides three Web sites for finding local recycling options, but the closest option they list that is open to Washington County residents is a drop-off point at Tenleytown Ace Hardware in Washington, D.C.

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While it's legal in Maryland to throw household CFL bulbs in the garbage, the Environmental Protection Agency strongly encourages recycling them, EPA spokeswoman Roxanne Smith said.

CFLs contain an average of about 5 milligrams of mercury sealed within the glass tubing, or about the amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen, Smith said. This essential component is what makes them such an efficient light source, she said.

While the amount is very small compared to the amount in other products, such as older thermometers, even small amounts of mercury can accumulate and cause environmental problems, Smith said. With environmental groups pushing for a nationwide conversion to CFLs, there is a lot of potential for accumulation, said Bender, who worked on the EPA household hazardous waste conference for five years and represented the mercury recycling industry for eight.

Expensive process

The recycling process reduces the release of mercury into the environment and allows for reuse of the mercury, as well as the glass, metals and other materials, Smith said.

However, the process is too expensive for many local governments to take on alone, Bender said.

That's the case in Washington County, where Hoch said a bulb recycling program would be "a little unrealistic."

The solution, Bender said, lies with the manufacturers and retailers of the bulbs.

"What we're encouraging is a more comprehensive approach, where manufacturers and retailers take responsibility for the entire life cycle of the product," he said.

For example, in Minnesota, the utilities provide funding for local-government collection programs for the used bulbs, and Wal-Mart started a pilot CFL recycling project in five states last year, Bender said.

Bender said he thought Allegheny Power should have arranged a mail-back coupon or a drop-off center before facilitating such a large mailing, and said customers who don't want the bulbs should be discouraged from throwing them away.

"This mentality of a throw-away society really doesn't exist because everything ends up going somewhere," Bender said.

In the case of CFLs thrown out with household trash, that "somewhere" could be the fish you eat for dinner, he said.

According to the EPA, most of the mercury from products thrown in landfills remains in the landfill. But when CFLs break, whether in a kitchen trash can, a trash compactor or a landfill, they release some mercury into the air, Smith said.

"In the environment, mercury may be transformed into methylmercury, which can cycle through the environment and bioaccumulate in the food chain," she said.

As a result of this process, Maryland has a fish consumption advisory that cautions pregnant and breast-feeding women against eating certain types of fish, Bender said.

Environmental and personal concerns

Rachel Bowers, 70, of Hagerstown, said she learned the risks of mercury accumulation firsthand a few years ago when she went to see a metabolic doctor for a thyroid problem and was told she had too much mercury in her system due to a diet rich in tuna.

When Bowers received the mercury-containing bulbs, she was concerned.

"I don't know that the saving of energy would be enough to offset the possible damage to people and the environment," Bowers said.

In fact, Bender said, science suggests the energy-saving capacity of CFL bulbs does net an overall environmental gain.

Coal-burning power plants, such as the ones that produce Allegheny Power's electricity, also release mercury into the environment because there are small amounts of mercury in coal, Bender said. By reducing energy consumption, the CFLs cut down on coal-fire mercury emissions as well as the carbon dioxide emissions that have been linked to global warming, he said.

Still, a better solution would be a light bulb that conserves energy without the use of mercury, but that technology is at least five years away, Bender said.

In the meantime, CFLs are the best route, but it's important to pressure manufacturers to reduce their mercury content and contribute to recycling efforts, Bender said.

"It needs to be a balanced approach in terms of both energy efficiency and trying to reduce the amount of mercury released into the environment," he said.

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