What is it about government mandates that curse innovation to failure?
Ethanol turned out to be more environmentally harmful than the fossil fuels it was replacing via federal mandate. Now scientists understand the “green” compact fluorescent light bulbs to be dangerous because they contain mercury.
While scientists couldn’t agree on just how beneficial compact fluorescent light bulbs were, journalists on network news shows had widely agreed that CFLs are a good thing.
“They last 10 times longer and they’re really great for the environment,” Kris Connell of Real Simple Magazine said on “The Early Show” March 10.
Each of the three broadcast networks has featured the bulbs and promoted them as energy-efficient, environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional incandescent bulbs. Journalists and others who support the bulbs touted their benefits but rarely focused on the potential risks.
NBC’s “Today” show featured the bulbs on its “Today Goes Green” series Jan. 23, 2008, as one way average Americans can adjust their lives to be more “environmentally friendly.”
“If every American home replaced just one incandescent bulb with a CFL, in one year it would save enough energy to light more than three million American homes and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of more than 800,000 cars,” co-host Meredith Vieira said.
“Replace just one of your standard light bulbs with one of those curly compact fluorescent lamps,” Diane Sawyer suggested on ABC’s “Good Morning America” April 20. “If every household in the U.S. replaced just one standard bulb with a CFL tomorrow … it would be like taking 2 million cars off the road.”
The Sept. 28, 2007, CBS “Early Show” even said “going green,” including switching from traditional incandescent bulbs to CFLs, was “good for your health, it’s good for your pocketbook, and it’s good for the environment.”
The print media joined in. USA Today called them the “wave of the future” in March 2007. The Los Angeles Times said in April 2007 the bulbs “would be good for the environment and consumers’ pocketbooks.”
With this help from the media, proponents of the bulbs convinced Congress to ban incandescent light bulbs in the energy bill President Bush signed into law in Dec. 19, 2007. The bill increases efficiency standards and effectively bans traditional bulbs by 2014, a timetable considered a victory by supporters like Rep. Jane Harman , D-Calif., who was the first to introduce legislation that would ban the bulbs.
But what the media ignored or downplayed in the run-up to the ban was that CFLs contain mercury, a highly toxic metal infamous for its presence in thermometers. In the last two years, network news shows mentioned the CFL-mercury link only seven times. Four of the reports came after the incandescent ban had already been signed into law.
Each CFL contains about 5 milligrams of mercury. That’s enough for state environmental agencies to recommend complicated and expensive cleanups for accidental bulb breaks in homes.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection recommended  a woman contact a hazardous waste cleanup company when a CFL broke on her child’s bedroom carpet, sending the mercury level to more than six times the “safe” limit. The crew estimated the cleanup would cost $2,000.
The 5 milligrams of mercury are also enough to contaminate 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe drinking levels, according to a March 19 MSNBC.com article  that “extrapolated from Stanford University research on mercury.”
‘The Cost of Good Intentions’
But even when the networks mentioned the mercury risk, reporters and other proponents of the bulbs downplayed the significance, especially before the federal law was passed to ban traditional bulbs.
Several NBC broadcasts characterized mercury in CFLs as a “small amount.” ABC’s “Good Morning America” called it a “tiny amount of mercury” on May 3, 2007. Unfortunately the “tiny amount” multiplied by the millions of bulbs now in use could mean a lot of contaminated water.
Brian Williams wrote the risk off as “the cost of good intentions” on the NBC “Nightly News” March 20, 2008. But “Nightly News” correspondent John Larson put it in a more accurate context, reporting that mercury is “one of the most poisonous substances on Earth. Break one of these in your home and you’ve got a problem.”
“The federal government has an 11-step do-it-yourself cleanup plan that looks a lot like a toxic waste cleanup, because that’s what it is,” Larson reported. “But it has an even larger problem: where to put the 400 million CFLs being sold a year when they burn out. Not in the trash – too poisonous. For the time being, take CFLs to a hazardous waste disposal center.”
But even well-intentioned recycling programs apparently aren’t working. Meredith Vieira on the January 23 “Today” downplayed mercury concerns by noting that “Home Depot will take them back.” But she should have talked to Patricia Stoll, a Ventura County, Calif., woman who wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times Jan. 17, 2008.
“When I tried to return the bulbs to Home Depot, I was asked to send them directly to the manufacturer,” Stoll wrote. “In frustration, I just threw them into the trash.”
Home Depot could not be reached for comment.
Even environmentalists have trouble being diligent with the bulbs. The New York Times profiled Cynthia DuBose, a self-proclaimed “fanatical environmentalist,” on Jan. 10, 2008. DuBose started using CFLs in the late 1980s. But she just threw them in the trash until “five or six years ago” when she finally found out they were dangerous.
“Fanatical environmentalists” and well-intentioned average Americans already struggle to keep up with complicated and inconvenient recycling methods. And CFLs have yet to catch on with Americans less interested in troubling themselves with recycling.
The Solution: More Government!
The media focus on the threat of mercury has increased since the ban on incandescents was signed into law.
But now that the media have discovered CFLs pose serious environmental threats that will only increase as more Americans are forced to buy them, they’re not calling for a second look at the ban.
Journalists’ advice to Americans concerned about the health and environmental threat posed by CFL bulbs? “Just don’t drop it,” NBC’s John Larson said during his March 20 report. “Energy advocates agree your new CFLs are still overall the right thing to do for the planet.”
Now proponents of the bulbs are using the mercury danger to push for even more government involvement. The bill that banned incandescent bulbs also forces the Department of Energy to “find ways to minimize the amount of mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs.”
“And although one dot of mercury might not seem so bad, almost 300 million compact fluorescents were sold in the United States last year,” The New York Times wrote in a Feb. 17, 2008, editorial. “Businesses and government recyclers need to start working on more efficient ways to deal with that added mercury.”
Other reports pointed out that a few recycling programs do exist, including one run by a light bulb manufacturer. “For now, Osram Sylvania is offering its customers packaging to send the compact fluorescents back for recycling and prevent the mercury from leaking into the environment,” The Washington Post reported Jan. 20, 2008.
The reports didn’t address the carbon and mercury “footprint” created by the return programs – boxes for shipping and fuels to power the automobiles and airplanes that carry the burned-out bulbs, on top of the cost and environmental impact of recycling itself.