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Industry Views CFL Bulbs in New Light

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Just when compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) seemed to be gaining ground with American consumers, the fact that they contain mercury—a neurotoxin linked to brain, liver and kidney damage—has led manufacturers and home channel retailers to reassess the category.

On May 10, Wal-Mart announced that it would “dramatically lower” the amount of mercury in CFLs sold in Wal-Mart stores and Sam’s Clubs. The company—which had earlier announced it is hoping to sell 100 million CFLs in 2007—is working with GE, Royal Philips, Osram Sylvania and Lights of America to reduce the mercury level in CFLs by an average of 360 pounds of mercury per 100 million units, or by about 33 percent.

“Wal-Mart is committed to selling only Energy Star-qualified CFLs that are safe for our customers and great for the environment,” said Andy Ruben, Wal-Mart’s vp-strategy and sustainability. “By partnering with our manufacturers, we are achieving mercury reductions in CFLs before they reach our store shelves.”

CFLs, which use 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent bulbs, last up to 10 times longer and save about $30 in electricity costs over the bulb’s lifetime, have been heavily promoted by manufacturers, retailers and environmental groups.

Although not all retailers report CFL sales, industry estimates put 2006 unit sales of CFL bulbs between 91 million and 95 million. And, according to 18 seconds.org, a web site that promotes the Energy Star CFL campaign, more than 52 million units were sold in the first five months of 2007. Introduced in the early 1980s, CFL bulbs have gone through many design changes and have steadily increased in sales over the ensuing two-and-a-half decades. In 2006, the estimated units sold represented about 5 percent of the total light bulb market in the United States.

At issue now is what happens to the mercury in CFLs once they have been disposed of. Some groups, including the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, have been pushing a plan to keep these bulbs out of landfills, which they say could eventually become contaminated if enough mercury-filled bulbs are dumped in any one area.

According to Wendy Reed, Energy Star campaign director for the EPA, her organization is also working with manufacturers, retailers and even the U.S. Postal Service to come up with ways that recycling can be used as an alternative to disposal. They are also working together to put standards in place that reduce the amount of mercury in each bulb. “There are already mechanisms in place, and whereas product sales are not an issue right now, over time it’s anticipated to change because of the increasing sales of CFLs,” she said. “As sales go up, the amount of mercury in each bulb needs to go down.”

In April, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) agreed to a standard of capping the amount of mercury in CFLs to the following: for bulbs that are 25 watts and lower, the cap would be five grams of mercury; for bulbs 26 watts and higher, the cap would be six grams. According to Reed, this will reduce the average amount of mercury across the category. (The average is now five grams per bulb, she said.)

Home Depot spokeswoman Jean Niemi said the majority of CFL bulbs sold in Home Depot stores contain between 2.3 mg and 3.5 mg of mercury, which is significantly lower than the 5 mg recommended by NEMA. The packaging on CFL bulbs sold at Home Depot—mostly under the proprietary label n:vision, as well as Philips and Feit—includes a Web site address, www.lamprecycle.org, where consumers can find information about the proper disposal of the bulbs. “The CFL bulbs we sell do contain small amounts of mercury and should not be discarded with regular household trash,” Niemi said.

Reed also said that the form of mercury in CFL bulbs is not the most potent and, overall, represents a minimal amount of the total mercury present in the environment. For example, the EPA reports that a coal-fired power plant emits four times more mercury to power an incandescent bulb than to power a CFL. Reed understands, however, that mercury—which has been tied to some dangerous issues, including the dramatic increase of autism in children—is a frightening word to American consumers.

“Education on this issue is extremely important, and it’s extremely difficult to do,” she said. “There’s been a one-size-fits-all approach to mercury, and it terrifies people. Suddenly, we’re at a turning point; everyone likes CFLs. We don’t want disposal to become an issue.”

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