Plan Sought to Dispose of Mercury-Laced Light Bulbs

Yesterday, a number of health advocates and a local politician asked lawmakers to develop a plan for the safe disposal of compact fluorescent light bulbs, those energy-efficient bulbs that contain small amounts of <"">mercury. While traditional incandescent bulbs do not contain mercury, they are also not energy efficient.

Because federal and Suffolk county officials have introduced plans to phase out the incandescent, mercury-free bulbs in favor of the higher-efficiency, mercury-laced bulbs, state Senator Craig Johnson (Democrat-Port Washington) announced that now is the time to develop “safe, fiscally prudent” methods for disposing of these compact fluorescent light bulbs, also known as CFLs. Johnson added, “It’s not just simply the light bulb burns out and you can throw it out.”

Mercury remains a dangerously significant source of environmental contamination and a recent study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology indicated that in 2000, mercury releases caused by mercury-containing products accounted for an estimated 32 percent of mercury releases to air, two percent to land, and four percent to water. “Mercury-containing products such as thermometers, switches, and dental products release mercury throughout the product life-cycle, including during production, use, and disposal,” sad Alexis Cain, lead author of the study and an EPA environmental scientist.

High mercury levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system; can harm a developing fetus if the mother is exposed to high levels; and accumulates in fish populations. Because many popular products release mercury throughout their lifecycles, there are significant uncertainties concerning the impact of mercury release into the environment. This includes CFLs, which each contain an average of five milligrams of mercury. And, while the EPA recommends the use of CFLs, it stresses safety in their handling, said spokesman Elias Rodriguez, suggesting placing the bulbs in two plastic bags before throwing them away or discarding them at recycling centers. On Long Island, Brookhaven and Huntington have permanent facilities for dropping off such items; other towns schedule special waste drop-off dates; and a CFL recycling program, with up to five drop-off facilities with regular hours may be running by year-end in Suffolk county, said Carrie Meek Gallagher, county commissioner of environment and energy.

Proper bulb disposal is not the only concern, said John Gilmore, executive director of Autism United, a Hicksville-based coalition of advocacy groups, who argues that use of CFLs could increase the environment’s overall mercury level, leading to increased health problems. Some autism advocates blame thimerosal, a once common mercury-based vaccine preservative for the rise in autism rates. Barbara Kaplan, 42, of Roslyn Heights, an advocate for children’s health, said lawmakers rushed into support of CFLs without examining the possible consequences. “Here we are taking mercury out of flu shots and bringing it into our homes,” she said.

The disposal of mercury-containing products has been the subject of public debate in recent years and programs have been initiated to eliminate mercury in thermometers as well as to discontinue its use in CFLs. There is also controversy revolving around who should pay for the separate disposal of mercury-containing switches and headlights removed from cars before they are crushed and recycled.

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