Sin, science, and letting there be light

A new report on the dangers of broken compact fluorescent light bulbs (“CFLs”) is again sounding alarms about what was once seen as a white knight in the eco-friendly world.

As noted earlier in these pages, a concern with these bulbs—which in the United States will slowly be replacing the more familiar but energy-hungry incandescent light bulb—is that, when damaged, CFLs release small but hazardous amounts of mercury, a known neurotoxin. (Mercury is needed to make the bulbs work, just like the more common fluorescent lighting used in almost every office building in the Western world. To learn a little about these bulbs and why they need mercury, visit here.)

But is the amount of mercury in a CFL really dangerous if the bulb breaks?

Based on the new study by Yadong Li and Li Jin of Jackson State University in Mississippi, the short answer is yes, there really is a concern about mercury from a damaged CFL, but maybe not as much as once feared.

UPI has a straightforward summary of what the new study is telling us. Janet Raloff at Science News provides a balanced, detailed take on the report's good news and bad.

For an overview of the dangers of (and how to clean up from) a broken CFL, the US Environmental Protection Agency shares some good information here.

For the Catholic ecologist, all this gets to the complexities of environmental protection in fallen world. CLFs greatly reduce energy use, which reduces our dependence on foreign oil as well as pollution from power plants, especially mercury from coal powered plants. But to get these goods we must use a bulb that contains small amounts of mercury—which can be bad. And so we need to be responsible and a bit selfless when using this technology. It is here we get into the unpleasantries of Original Sin colliding with our best intentions.

Once again, the real story here is that where some would seek salvation from human ills solely through the wonders of human ingenuity, others know better. New technologies hardly ever come without a price. And they hardly ever take away the need for informed, selfless users of that technology—that is, people who are ready to do their part to protect themselves, others and the environment in the certain event that something will go wrong.

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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.