Acton Institute Powerblog

Earth Day and the Environment

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Over the last week I’ve done a couple radio interviews related to my op-ed in the Detroit News, “U.S. must move beyond Earth Day slogans.”

Thanks to The Bill Meyer Show out of Medford, Oregon, who had me on in the morning last Thursday.

And thanks also to The Paul Edwards Program for having me on yesterday. I spoke with Paul at some length about the complications of owning Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFLs). In the course of the interview (which you can listen to here), I referenced a couple webpages that I’ll pass along.

The first is, hosted by Yahoo!, at which you can track the sales of CFLs in your state or locality. Michigan has bought over 1.2 million CFLs since the beginning of 2007.

There is some information on the mercury in CFLs fairly deep into the “Why Switch?” section. Here’s a taste of the copy: “All fluorescent lights contain trace amounts of mercury. But don’t worry — there is far less mercury in CFLs than in thermometers or old thermostats. Plus, using these bulbs helps
prevent mercury from being released into the air from coal-powered power plants. When they burn out years down the road, recycle them.”

But here’s a second piece I talked about that might take issue with those claims: “The CFL mercury nightmare,” by Steven Milloy of Milloy describes the experience of Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine, who faced a $2,000 clean-up bill when she accidentally broke a CFL, exposing mercury in her daughter’s bedroom.

Governments and corporations are engaging in huge campaigns to push the use of CFLs. The Home Depot gave away 1 million CFLs in an Earth Day promotion, and Wal-Mart is advocating them heavily. Check out this promotional video, “Energy Makeover,” from In Front with Wal-Mart, the company’s newest webcast program.

If the mercury in these CFLs, almost universally acknowledged to be a harmful environmental hazard, turns out to have serious health consequences, companies like Wal-Mart and The Home Depot could be opening themselves up to litigation. They may need to attach some sort of warning label (hopefully not a useless one that would win this contest).

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Peter Biro

    Saying that CFLs only contain small amounts of Mercury is trivializing the real issue. An average CFL contains between 5-7mg of Mercury, which is enough to contaminate between 5000-7000.0 lit of water above safe levels.
    The situation here in Australia is described in the attached report:

    Mercury pollution of Australia’s landfill sites.

    An immediate and on going environmental problem.

    In the heightened media attention given recently in response to Malcolm Turnbull announced initiative to phase out incandescent lights and replace them with compact Fluorescent lights by 2010 a lot of attention was also given the Mercury pollution issues created, if these products are not recycled.

    But a much more important issue was largely overlooked by the media in this debate. The issue is that we are already dumping round 70 million fluorescent tubes and other Mercury containing lights into our landfill sites, through out Australia.

    This represents about 1700.0 to 2000.0 kg of Mercury being dumped into our environment every year.

    To put it into the right perspective, there is enough Mercury in one average fluorescent tube to contaminate 30,000 litres of water to above safe Mercury levels. If we multiply that number 70 million times, we have a major environmental problem.
    Our state and Territory Governments and EPAs are responsible for what can and what cannot be dumped at landfill. Yet in spite of the fact that all states and territories have very stringent Mercury discharge limits imposed on waste taken to landfill, the dumping of Mercury present in Fluorescent tubes is for some reason totally ignored.
    Is this a problem?

    If the Mercury released from the broken lights stayed buried under the mountains of other rubbish, we may not be too concerned. But a number of studies clearly demonstrate that Mercury in landfills is transformed, by the action of heat and bacteria into Methyl Mercury a volatile and highly toxic form of Mercury. The toxic vapors of organic Mercury are dispersed into the environment, causing air, soil and water pollution.

    Recent US and Canadian studies show that the ambient air over landfills, where fluorescent tubes and HID lamps are dumped, can contain 40 to 50 times higher levels of Mercury that ambient air in the surrounding environment.

    Methyl Mercury released into the environment from landfills ends up in our lakes, rivers and our oceans, where it is consumed by fish and other creatures and through the process of bio-accumulation it becomes more and more concentrated in their bodies.

    Consumption of such fish and animals causes elevated levels of Methyl Mercury in humans, resulting in neurological damage especially to young and unborn children and in many other health problems to adults (i.e. Kidney, and liver damage, memory loss, IQ reduction, mental impairment, and other neurological illnesses, damage to the reproductive system, etc).

    Mercury in all its forms is a potent neurotoxin, much more potent than any other heavy metal, including Lead or Cadmium.

    A peer-reviewed study by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Centre for Children’s Health and the Environment, published February 28, 2005 calculated that the U.S. loses $8.7 billion annually due to the impact of Mercury on children’s brain development.
    It states that: “Before they take their first breath, as many as 600,000 babies may suffer permanent brain damage from their mothers’ exposure to Mercury pollution,”
    The largest Mercury polluters in USA are the coal burning, power generating plants, but that does not apply to Australia. Australian brown coal is practically Mercury free.
    In our case, the single largest source of Mercury pollution of our environment is Mercury containing lighting.

    Our authorities do recognize and acknowledge the dangers of Mercury, especially to pregnant women, young children and women who are planning a family. They recommend that these groups limit the intake of certain types of fish ( mainly the predatory types, which through bioaccumulation have the highest concentration of Mercury in their flesh) to no more than one serve per fortnight with no other fish consumed during that fortnight. The general population should limit consumption of these types of fish to once per week.

    So it is hard to understand, why our authorities take no action to stop the landfill dumping of Mercury containing lighting when they know too well that the Mercury released from these products will end up in our food and will cause harm to our health.

    In this respect, Australia is more that 40 years behind most developed countries of the World, including New Zealand and even some of our Asian neighbors. All these countries have banned the landfill disposal of fluorescent lights and mandated recycling.

    But if you ask our state and territory Ministers for Environment and EPAs, the standard answer will be that the problem is being studied by some kind of committee or is subject of an enquiry. This has been going on for at least 10 years, in spite of the fact, that Australia already has a cost effective, state of the art, proven recycling technology and an Australia-wide efficient system of collection available.

    The cost of recycling these products is generally less that 1% of their retail value and in addition to keeping the toxic Mercury out of our environment, by recycling, we would also recover about 20,000 metric tones of glass, and about 1000 metric tones of Aluminium and other metals for reuse, rather than burying such valuable and energy intensive material in landfill.
    There is no downside to recycling, only gain. We call onto our State and territory governments to stop debating the problem and take action.


    Peter Biro

  • So are you paid by the Republicans to say this or are you just gullible?