Saturday, January 10, 2009

Let There Be Illumination

Walking through the supermarket today, I spied the Jan. 12 cover of Time Magazine, which depicts a sweater-wearing person with a compact fluorescent bulb for a head. Think Edward Scissorhands, but ... er, brighter. Alongside the sweater-wearing bulb is the following teaser text: "Why We Need to See the Light about Energy Efficiency."

I didn't have the cash to buy the mag, so I left it on the stands. But since leaving the store, I've been thinking about that CFL bulb, which has come to symbolize for me a kind of blindness in policy-making. It's a relatively new blindness, and those afflicted with it tend not to realize it: We have a tendency to ignore the ways that policies affect people who have (or plan to have) children. We tend, moreover, not to think about pregnant women.

Allow me to elaborate, using the CFL as an example. There's been a push over the past few years to phase out old bulbs and make the CFLs mandatory, the rationale being that CFLs consume far less energy than "normal" (incandescent) bulbs do. Because they consume so little energy, power plants don't have to burn as much carbon-dioxide-producing fuel as they used to. In short, CFLs cut down on the emission of greenhouse gases. If everyone switches to CFLs, we can save a lot of energy, use less fossil fuel, and help fight global warming. That, in short, is the logic behind the CFL, and it's doubtless why Time Magazine chose to use one as a mascot on its energy awareness cover.

But there is a problem with the CFL: It contains a little bit of mercury, about enough to cover the tip of a pencil. That doesn't sound like much, but you wouldn't want to inhale that much nerve gas, and mercury is -- in fact -- a neurotoxin. Some forms of mercury are very lethal -- you wouldn't want to touch a drop, even with rubber gloves. The mercury in the light bulbs isn't nearly that nasty, but it is nevertheless the subject of some debate. People argue over whether the bulbs should have warning labels, over how to properly dispose of a dead CFL bulb, over whether the bulbs will leak mercury into water systems if they are introduced to landfills, and similar issues.

Here's the issue that concerns me the most, when it comes to these "green" bulbs: You absolutely do not want one in your house if you have children, or if there's a pregnant woman living there. Bulbs break in homes with children. Lots of things break. Bulbs are simply one of them, and it's a fact of life. And broken CFLs don't mix well with little kids: Even in small doses, inhaled mercury can retard brain development in growing minds, and is particularly harmful to fetuses and to children under the age of 6. (See also here.)

I learned the above stuff the hard way: Early this summer, about a week after my wife and I learned she was pregnant, one of those bulbs broke in our house -- a lamp using the bulb toppled onto my wife's desk and computer area. I knew women are supposed to avoid fish because of possible mercury content, so I kept her away from the desk while I struggled with the clean up.

And that clean-up was a struggle. Following official federal and state instructions on health-related Web sites like the EPA's and guidelines from a study conducted by the state of Maine, I ventilated the area by opening windows; I threw out most of the stuff that the glass had come in contact with; I cut away a large swath of carpet, rolled it up and disposed of it. I wore gloves. I took off my wedding ring (because gold attracts mercury). I even shaved off my goatee, because dust had flown up into my face while I was cutting out the carpet in the affected area. I kept my wife out of that room for about three weeks, and tried to keep my four-year-old son out of there, too, though that was tougher.

That was all for one bulb, and if it seems like an overreaction, you should have seen our ob/gyn's reaction to the news about the bulb and the fact it contains mercury: She told me my wife should find another place to live for the duration of the pregnancy. My reaction was comparatively subdued.

One of the things that frustrated me most about this incident is that if you look on official, government and environmentalist pages about CFLs, they tend to talk about how wonderful they are and how we should switch to them. Yet they say that if the bulbs break, we should take all of the above precautions. Many of them recommend that we "Get pregnant women and children out of the area during the clean-up."

But it never seems to occur to the authors on any of these sites -- or to legislators who are behind the drive to make these bulbs mandatory -- that some women are single parents. Some mothers don't have other homes to move into. Some have husbands who are away so often that the wives are likely to be the ones dealing with the clean-ups. And some, it must be remembered, don't yet know they're pregnant. And it's precisely at that time, when the fetus is so new that even the mother doesn't know it's there, that mercury exposure can have the most severe side effects.

Even in their rebuttals to CFL concerns, advocates tend not to think about families, or to take them very seriously. For instance, one defense of the CFL argues that the amount of mercury in my bulb at home is miniscule compared with the amount of mercury a powerplant puts into the air. This is true, but it also completely overlooks the reason that parents are worried about the lightbulbs: It's not the total amount of mercury released globally but rather the magnitude of the local dosage that matters -- I can step outside and breathe just fine, and not worry about the amount of mercury the power plants are emitting because that amount has spread itself so thin it's become negligible, but when a bulb breaks in my home, I now have 25,000 or more nanograms of mercury in a single room, and the accepted safety limit is 300 nanograms. If I'm thinking about what my children are breathing while they're bouncing on the couch, I'm far more worried about what broke on the carpet next to them, inside a closed room, than I am about a power plant 30 miles away. The global perspective, though accurate, does nothing to alleviate my concerns as a parent.

Meanwhile, I've heard a few CFL advocates suggest that when we install our CFLs, we should just get rid of our carpets. It's a simple matter: Just get rid of the carpets, and then you don't have to worry about little bits of mercury getting stuck in them, evaporating every time you vacuum. It's easier to clean a wood floor than it is to clean a carpet.

Sure. All of that is true. I vastly prefer wood floors to carpets anyway. However, and at the risk of sounding repetitive ... I have children. Children crawl. It's a natural thing. Most people remember that. Ever try to crawl on wood flooring, or hard tile? Children also fall. A lot. Ever fall on tile or hard flooring? Families have carpets and rugs for a reason. And we're going to keep that carpeting until they move out, even if it means cleaning gum and chocolate out of the rug fibers every week. (See Footnote 1.)

It seems to me that the very people most inclined to push environmentally-oriented policies must not have children in their homes. Instead, they have this huge blind spot: It simply doesn't occur to them that

1) bulbs might break;
2) there might be pregnant women or small children in the breakage area; and
3) that the very home that has children is also likely to have carpets.

Perhaps the supporters of such policies don't believe in children, and think anyone who has one is irresponsible. Perhaps they had children long ago, and those children are no longer in the house. Maybe they simply don't want to be parents. Whatever the case, when they start talking about what we ought to do, they have a weird tendency to ignore the fact that families full of rugrats exist, and that's unfortunate, because those families are likely to remain blind themselves to the risks behind things like CFLs. The talking heads will say CFLs are good, so parents will buy them. When the bulbs break, parents will cheerfully sweep them up, vacuum the carpet (unaware of the EPA's advice against it), and then let the kids keep playing. Years later, when the kids have trouble doing math, staying focused, falling asleep, or keeping their hands from trembling, they'll see a therapist instead of a toxicologist.

And that's a nasty combination: If the supporters act as though there are no children, and the parents act as though there are no risks, we might very well -- in trying to save the planet -- create a new public health disaster on the order of thalidomide. I hope that's not the case, sincerely. But I do worry about it at times.

- GS


(1) There also seems to be a bias in favor of homeowners in the lightbulb discussions: If you're renting an apartment, you can't just cut out your carpet. Well, I suppose you could, but there will be complications later...


  1. Another risk no one has addressed: CFL light is less natural than traditional light bulb light. For artists it's the difference between vastly different shades of color in indoor vs. outdoor light. It has the potential to be a real career breaker. ):

    That's my issue with CFLs... then again, I don't plan on having kids any time soon either.

  2. I hadn't thought of that. That isn't as trivial as it might sound: Quite a lot of industries depend on good art (film, book publishing, magazine publishing, marketing, etc.), and many of those art-dependent industries are significant contributors to California's economy. Interesting.