Mercury's Place in a Fallen World

May 2008

We’ve been born into a world that fell along with humanity, and so our best plans—more often than not—go off course. Still, we wake up every morning and must make the best of things. It is only with God’s grace that we can hope to make our corner of creation some small degree better.

All this is prologue to an issue raised by a writer to this paper responding to a column I’d written mentioning the use of a certain type of lighting to reduce energy consumption, and so lessen energy bills and greenhouse gas production. While I’ve written before about climate change, and our Holy Father’s very real concerns on the matter, the lighting issue raised in that letter deserves particular attention because it not only teaches good ecological (and economic) lessons, but theological ones, too.

The writer was correct that so-called compact fluorescent light bulbs (or “CFLs” for short) contain mercury—a small amount, but enough to raise questions. Mercury, we know, is a bioaccumulating neurotoxin. In sufficient quantities it causes severe illness in humans. Most vulnerable are unborn babies, which is why governments and environmental advocates would like to remove the chemical from our industries and homes. (It is interesting that many pro-abortion advocates decry the effects of mercury on the unborn; in doing so they argue against their own position … but that’s another column.)

As for CFLs, a recent study in Maine highlights the dangers if a bulb were to shatter in one’s home. And yet even those working to reduce mercury emissions still urge the use of CFL lighting. As reported in the Boston Globe, Michael Bender, the director of the “Mercury Policy Project,” a nonprofit group working to do away with mercury use, says, "using compact fluorescent bulbs is still the brightest idea out there … people should not be afraid but informed and prepared and learn how to dispose of (CFLs) properly."

All this raises a question. If mercury is bad for us, why are governments and ecologists praising the use of CFLs, which have the stuff in it?

While CFLs are more expensive than conventional incandescent bulbs, they last about ten times longer, and they use only one-quarter the electricity. Considering that lighting accounts for about twenty percent of most people’s electric bill, using CFLs around the house will reduce your monthly utility check. Moreover, the environmental benefit of compact fluorescent lights is sizable; if everyone switched just one light bulb in their home to a CFL, reductions in electrical demand (and so, generation) would result in a reduction of pollution equivalent to the amount produced annually by 800,000 automobiles.

All this is good. But then there’s that catch: compact fluorescent lights need about five milligrams of mercury in them to function, which is about the amount of ink in the period at the end of this sentence. (To put that in perspective, it would take 250 to 1,000 of these light bulbs to equal the amount of mercury in just one typical mercury thermometer.)

Still, no matter how small the amount, mercury is bad. But here’s the upside: by cutting electrical demand, CFLs actually reduce more dangerous mercury emissions from many power plants, especially the coal-fired variety. And while mercury emissions are not necessarily an issue for local natural-gas powered plants, cutting energy usage means less dependency on fossil fuels, as well as cutting emissions of other pollutants, which is always beneficial. Most importantly, however, is if we use CFLs correctly, their mercury won’t enter the environment. (Importantly, like all household hazards, special care must be given to CFLs should one break—information that should come with the bulb.)

Of course, mercury vapor is needed not just in energy-saving CFLs, but also in commonly used fluorescent bulbs (used in overhead office lights), neon signs, and about a half-dozen other lighting systems that we all use in our homes, schools and work places. Small amounts of mercury are also used in many electronics, computers and even in the LCD displays of our cell phones.

Then again, many products we have in our homes are toxic. Pesticides and cleaning products certainly are, but simple items like flea collars and nail polish removers are so toxic that they should not be thrown in the garbage. They should be handled as household hazardous wastes and disposed of only at special collections (which in Rhode Island are held dozens of times annually in various communities and at the Central Landfill).

All this is a reminder that we live in a fallen world. In a perfect world—dare I say, in the Kingdom—mercury will take its proper place in creation, whatever that is. But for now, here outside Eden, as scientists devise even better options for low-energy lighting and hazardous waste disposal, CFLs are our best low-energy choice for lighting homes and workplaces. Perfect? No. But then, what that humanity creates ever is?

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.