Problems With Mercury Containing Lightbulbs

This article is more than 13 years old.

There's been a big push lately for homeowners to start using more energy efficient light bulbs called compact fluorescent lights. They're the coiled-shaped bulbs that cost between $10 and $20 and use less energy.

SOUND OF WAL-MART AD: Hi, I'm Angela, See this funny looking light...if every Wal-Mart shopper would buy one of these, it would be like taking a million cars off the road."

INTRO CONTINUES: What many people don't realize is these lights also contain the toxic chemical - mercury, which can damage people's nervous systems. WBUR's Nancy Cook has more.


COOK: It's late afternoon at the Cambridge Drop Off Recycling Center. Residents are unloading pieces of cardboard, old electronics, books and clothes. Sylvia Fine considers herself environmentally savvy. She composts and uses compact fluorescent lights in her home.

FINE: I'm told it's the environmentally correct thing to do

COOK: But like many people, Fine's not sure how to throw out these lights.

FINE: I understand they have mercury in them, and that they do need to be disposed of in some careful way. I haven't come to that yet. They're supposed to last 10 years. I figure someone would have figured it out by then.

COOK: But unfortunately, Massachusetts hasn't sorted it out yet. The state doesn't require anyone to collect or recycle these bulbs. A state law passed last summer is forcing the light bulb manufacturers to educate consumers about safe disposal. Environmentalists such as Elizabeth Saunders of Clean Water Action worry that this law doesn't go far enough.

SAUNDERS: That seems like a lot of work and onus on the consumer, where really the manufacturer who is making the toxic product should have the responsibility for preventing any pollution from that product - as we say - cradle to grave. Making sure from the initial manufacturer all the way from the disposal, it's safe and no toxins are getting out into the environment or into people's bodies.

COOK: About 60 percent of Massachusetts' cities and towns voluntarily recycle compact fluorescent lights through their public works departments. So does IKEA and a handful of Cambridge hardware stores. Mike Kohorst of the light industry group National Electrical Manufacturers Association says other businesses could help out.KOHORST: There may be efficient ways to have drop off points, but in order to do that, the most logical way to do it is through retailers. But the retailers by and large are reluctant to do that...they don't like to serve as the recipients of everyone's waste.

COOK: So consumers - like Sylvia Fine from Cambridge's Recycling Center - are left wondering what to do. Greg Cooper of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection says the agency is aware of this problem.

COOPER: At this point, we recognize that we are in a place where we need to build a stronger infrastructure, provide more options for residents in conjunction with retailers and manufacturers. I would anticipate in the coming months that many more options will become available to properly dispose of and recycle compact fluorescent lamps and light bulbs.

COOK: More options for light disposal will have to surface since the state's year-old mercury management law won't allow any mercury products into the state landfills starting in May 2008. For WBUR, I'm Nancy Cook.

This program aired on August 27, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.