Dying to Go Green

imagesCA9FYLJTI’ve never been one for fads. As kids, my brother and I were challenged by our parents to think about our choices and to reflect on our relationships. I suppose that’s why “everybody’s doing it” was never an argument that meant much to me.

So I’m a bit of a skeptic when political leaders say that we have a looming crisis. It usually sounds too convenient. Another crisis mostly means we have to act now, that we don’t have time to wait, and somebody’s liberties are about to be curtailed in a significant way. Or more of their earnings are about to be seized by the government, supported by force of arms. (Some of my readers don’t like it when I put it like that, but it’s quite true; if you doubt me, stop paying federal income taxes and see what happens.)

Skepticism isn’t a bad thing. The word skeptikoi was originally applied to followers of the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho, meaning that they didn’t adhere to the latest thinking but tended toward reflective inquiry instead. Sounds like good advice for everything coming out of government these days, but it’s almost impossible to stay on top of it all. From medium-sized towns like my own Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to state governments and all the way to the nation’s capital, the motto of government is “get things done.” Erected on the backs of taxpayers, powerful political empires have been built in which the vision of those at the top is always more important than the freedom and income of those at the bottom.

Let’s take the environmental fads that bombard us every day. The Weather Channel preaches them. The White House preaches them. Our children come home from school and preach them as well after hearing them from their teachers. Well, here’s some news for you. Some of those fads are turning quite deadly.

All around the world cities are banning the use of plastic grocery bags. In the US, San Francisco is reported to have been the first. In a study recently released, two professors say that the ban is actually killing people. Their research was a joint project of the law schools at Pennsylvania University and George Mason University. Here is a brief statement of their findings, taken directly from their published abstract:  “reusable grocery bags, a common substitute for plastic bags, contain potentially harmful bacteria.” In areas that have such bans they say that visits to hospital emergency rooms and deaths have spiked by 25%. The culprits are coliform and E.coli, deposited into reusable bags from the foods carried in them, and then transferred to other foods when reused again.

Remember the congressional ban on incandescent light bulbs (those inexpensive bulbs we’ve been using for generations)? In their place we see millions of energy-efficient new bulbs, also known as compact flourescent lamps (CFLs). They’re better on all counts except one: they contain deadly mercury.

While writing this post I went to my utility room and opened the drawer containing our household lightbulbs. The new energy-efficient bulbs contain a warning about what to do if we break one. It sounds rather ominous: “Manage in accordance with Spills, Disposal and Site Cleanup Requirements.”  The warning then directs me to an EPA site-cleanup website.

When I entered the website address in my URL line, I was redirected to a different page on the EPA website. It seems that the cleanup page for mercury light bulbs has been moved. Perhaps there were too many terrified citizens voicing their outrage. To see the site for yourself, click HERE. In case you don’t believe me, click directly on the link provided by the lightbulb package from my utility drawer:  www.epa.gov/cflcleanup. Either way, you’ll get the same results.

With a little effort, I eventually found the appropriate EPA instruction page. Click HERE, but prepare yourself to be startled. Then allow yourself some righteous anger when you realize that in place of a simple and safe incandescent bulb, your federal officials have now dictated to you that you’ll soon be using only the most dangerous of chemicals around your loved ones and inside your home when you just so you can see in the dark.

How dangerous are these bulbs? Read the EPA webpage on CFL cleanup for yourself. If you shatter a bulb, you’re advised to turn off your A/C system and remove children and pets from the area … not for fear of broken glass, but because toxic mercury may be floating around your kitchen or living room. Near the bottom of the webpage we’re assured that the amount of mercury is small (“less than 1/100th of the amount in a mercury thermometer“). Still, millions of these bulbs are going to end up in landfills. We can soon expect groundwater–and our own drinking water–to be contaminated with mercury, thanks to our federal government.

As an interesting aside, an entirely separate EPA page gives further warnings of what to do with a mercury spill. Clothing and shoes that have come in contact with this dangerous neurotoxin should be permanently disposed of. Sadly, this statement does not appear on the page on CFL breakage warnings. God help the poor homeless person who digs in your garbage and thinks himself fortunate to find a new shirt or new tennis shoes.

Here is even more startling information. The Federal Environment Agency of Germany (that country’s version of the EPA) warns that airborne mercury levels are frighteningly higher than suggested or allowed for up to five hours after the bulb is shattered. If you’re still not convinced of the danger, check out the warning given by Mercury Instruments, a Colorado firm specializing in the cleanup of this powerful substance:  after a bulb shatters, “there is absolutely no way to know that you have removed the mercury unless you screen the area with a mercury vapor monitor.”

Sponsored by Bowling Green University, the Ohio EPA and others, a startling video of how mercury vapor quickly spreads is also available on the company’s website. To see it, click HERE. Take note that in the second example shown on the video, the amount of mercury is only about half of what the EPA says is found in most CFLs. It’s also important to be aware that mercury vapor spreads naturally through exposure to the air. It doesn’t take much to cause its rapid dissemination.

Children are familiar with the Hatter, a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He and the March Hare are both pronounced “mad” by the Cheshire Cat. What those children probably don’t know is that the term “mad hatter” came from the practice of using mercury to soften fur hats. With the proliferation of CFLs in the name of environmental stewardship we may be producing an entirely new generation of mad characters.

Perhaps the issue of environmental management doesn’t belong in the hands of crisis-oriented political elites. Maybe skepticism is a moral virtue. We hear constantly from “nanny-state” politicians that our liberties are being infringed upon for the sake of our own safety and welfare. Is that just a convenient slogan?

Once again, the old proverb seems to prove itself. Exchanging liberty for supposed security still sounds like a rotten deal to me.

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4 comments on “Dying to Go Green

  1. Michele says:

    Good morning, I love this post. I have a background in biology (and ecology for that matter) and also have a number of these burned out bulbs in a basket on my counter. I refuse to throw them out cause they have mercury (!) in them. Thanks for ferreting out the information from govt websites about the dangers of these things. . . It is a totally wrong headed, dumb thing to have foisted on the American public. BTW, they don’t last all that long either. That’s why I have a number of them, even though we fixed up our house just two years ago and HAD to have them installed. Our town is planning on outlawing plastic bags this spring, I think I will forward them your links on the health implications of reusable grocery bags.

  2. David Avina says:

    John,
    I agree yet there is something your are missing and that is the FACT that every coal fueled power plant in the country emits about 11 pounds of organic mercury in the flue gas stack emissions every day. The Mississippi Power plant Jack Watson on Cowan Road has the honor of having the worst emissions in the country. People in Ocean Springs are down range of its pollution making your light bulb much less a hazard than the generation station.
    Several years ago I obtained a patent on a very simple and cost effective method of removing mercury from coal generation stations and wrote a peer review paper for the International Power Generation Conference and delivered the paper with very few attendees. I also notified every power company in the United States as to the available and cost effectiveness of this invention and received No response or inquire for its implementation. After a six month waiting period I started contacting the power utilities and found that a not for profit NGO company called EPRI had been contacted about my invention on alt least ten confirmed occasions and was told by a leading member of that organization that it didn’t work even though the paper I submitted was based upon information obtained by EPRI research.
    So I contacted the source of this EPRI communication and to find out why they had delivered such an unsubstantiated comment. The only statement I could obtain to over twenty question was WE DO NOT HAVE A PROBLEM. The conversation went something like this:
    ME: So has EPRI found a way to removed mercury from stack emissions?
    EPRI: We don’t have a problem.
    ME: Could you tell me where I can find the research that would support that statement?
    EPRI: Like I said We Don’t Have a Problem.
    ME: Would I be of interest for you to read my paper and then decide?
    EPRI” Like I said We Don’t Have a Problem.
    ME: I am sure you realize people are getting sick and dying from these emissions.
    EPRI: Like I said We Don’t Have a Problem.
    etc.etc..etc..
    As you can see we did not get very far with this conservation.

    • John Switzer says:

      Thanks for your comment, David. It’s most welcome. I’m not sure I missed the point you’re making just because I didn’t mention it in this particular post. I recognize we still have pollution issues. My point in offering this commentary was to propose that our “solutions” should be more thoroughly researched. Mercury is mercury. It’s dangerous in my living room and in the neighborhood air. Either way, it’s a problem. Putting it in lightbulbs and then forcing me to use those bulbs doesn’t make the problem of mercury emissions any better at the Gulfport power plant. As for your brain child, I hope you’ll continue to press for its use. It sounds important, and needed. And perhaps you can apply it to all the kid-filled kitchens where mercury is floating in the air!

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