Shedding Light on the Human Cost of CFLs


Governments around the world are trying to phase out incandescent bulbs and are creating legislation that requires consumers to purchase only energy-efficient light bulbs such as CFLs or LEDs to light their houses, businesses and factories.

At first glance, it appears to be a great plan. But while these compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) or  “green” light bulbs might be good for the environment, they are not so good for people’s health – if they are broken. CFL bulbs only function because of a small amount of mercury inside them that creates a chemical reaction that causes light.

It’s a minor amount, but the British government is concerned enough to issue a warning to consumers that whenever a CFL bulb is broken, the room should be cleared for up to half an hour to avoid any danger of inhaling mercury vapours.

That’s easy enough, but I wonder if the government has given much thought to all the factory workers in China, where most of the bulbs come from, who face constant exposure to the mercury.

A recent article from The Sunday Times highlights this problem, reporting that doctors, regulators, lawyers and courts in China are very concerned about what an increase in demand for CFL bulbs will do to the health of Chinese factory workers producing these light bulbs.

Making CFL bulbs requires the handling liquid or solid mercury. With continued contact, mercury accumulates and permanently harms the nervous system, lungs and kidneys.

Worse, it causes severe damage to foetuses and young children.

But it’s not just the factory workers at risk. The article also highlights the fact that this increase in demand for CFL bulbs has resulted in the re-opening of mercury mines in some poverty-stricken provinces in China. These mines, having caused so much damage to the local environment and its residents, had been closed by the government only a few years earlier in response to falling global mercury prices.

It really does makes you wonder whether the energy-efficiency of these green light bulbs is worth the cost.

Image: AZAdam