What’s in a lightbulb?

If you watch television at all or read the newspapers a tiny bit, you’ve probably noticed that there’s this big advertising push about energy-saving lightbulbs: or compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL.)  CFLs are really just a small part of the whole green energy push, but they keep catching my attention. Now, normally I’m in love with things that A: are good for the environment, and B: save me money.  Regular lightbulbs are hot and burn a lot of energy, translating to a larger power bill.  I think we can all agree that a larger power bill is a really bad idea.   Especially in the winter when the cold temperatures here prompt the heater to run almost all the time.  Not cool.

However, I have a really big beef with these lightbulbs: they contain mercury.  You know, that stuff that keeps us from eating a lot of tuna – it’s a heavy metal that’s poisonous to us humans.  You probably remember some old thermometers with the classic bulb at the bottom had mercury in them – there’s a reason no one manufactures those anymore. 

Now, if you go to the official government website, there’s this neat little reassurance that the amount of mercury in the lightbulbs is so slight it’s not a big deal.  It says that most lightbulbs have no more than 4 milligrams of mercury, in comparison to the some 500 milligrams in an old thermometer.  4 milligrams doesn’t sound too scary, right?  Well, check out their instructions on how to dispose of a broken CFL lightbulb (pasted from their website, no changes made):   


1. Before cleanup

  • a. Have people and pets leave the room.
  • b. Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.
  • c. Shut off the central forced air heating/air conditioning (H&AC) system, if you have one.
  • d. Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb.

2. During cleanup

  • a. Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.
  • b. Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

3. After cleanup

  • a. Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of properly. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
  • b. For several hours, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the H&AC system shut off.

That sounds pretty darn serious for a compulsive klutz like me with a sick cat that can’t handle overdoses of chemicals. 

So, I think we’ll stick with the regular lightbulbs after the current CFLs wear out.  And don’t let the hype fool you – they wear out just like any other lightbulb if you have cute little brown-outs or power surges.  That warranty doesn’t mean squat. 

All the same, they’re rather fun to photograph.


4 thoughts on “What’s in a lightbulb?

  1. Now you’ve gotten me started, but I will continue on my own blog so as not to fill up your comment space….with a link back to your blog, of course.

    By the way, you’re right, they do make for an interesting photo

  2. /rant on
    There are few things that get me going as idiots in all branches of government telling us what we can or cannot do, particularly when it comes to the everyday, like our choice of light bulb. And it’s not the slanted environmental impact reports which claim that something that has mercury and houses gases not native to the areas where lightbulbs are used as being safer than something made of just metal and glass, it’s the politicization of forcing us to use one or another based on some illiterate’s understanding of an academic research study or some company writing a check to Sen. Whogivesacrap (West Coast/New England-Progressive)’s re-election campaign. That said, I love flourescent tube lights and the even lighting they provide without the eyestrain of a quickly diffusing light from a filamented incandescent, or the pixelated eyesore a composition Light Emitting Diode (LED) array, not to mention the month-to-month electricity bill savings. But the problem is, even more than them actually being an inferior technology to LEDs and vastly shorter living than the original Edison model incandescents, the offset cost; they’re like hybrid-engined cars. You have to keep them 10 times as long to realize the cost-savings of month-to-month over the original investment for a more expensive and less dependable/established technology.
    /rant off

    The housing for a CFL (the glass which contains the gas) is so much less elegant than the styles available for incandescents. Thank you for capturing the only angle that makes them look pleasant, dare I say, serene.

    • I certainly agree with the inferior technology – I think we’ve blown out more of the CFLs than the regular bulbs. And they buzz….rather irritating noise that can easily be heard. Not my fav at all – especially now that I’ve learned they can cause migraines 😦

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