Compact florescent light bulbs are the future. In fact, environmentalists are pushing consumers to replace incandescent bulbs with these CFL bulbs. Why wouldn't they? CFL bulbs burn a lot longer and save on energy. But there's a dirty little secret about CFLs...they contain a toxic metal called mercury.
CFL bulbs are meant to last a very long time. "I have one small bulb that's been going for six to seven years now," said a bulb user.
Retailers say they have sold over 150 million of these bulbs since 1993 all over the U.S., but eventually millions of the mercury containing CFLs will burn out and consumers will throw them away.
Toxicologist Dr. Mike Hooper says mercury is bad for the environment. "Each contain a very small amount of mercury in the tubes," he said.
Dr. Hooper says one tube has five milligrams inside it, equivalent to the tip of a ball point pen. "Is that still enough to even be concerned about?" asked NewsChannel 11.
"Any amount of mercury is toxic. We don't want any mercury in the environment. Mercury has a tenancy to be poisonous to wildlife, to fish and it tends to go up through the food chains and be toxic to human beings also," said Dr. Hooper.
For example, if 100,000 households in Lubbock each contained 10 bulbs, that means eventually one million bulbs will have to be trashed. If there is no recycling, all those bulbs could end up at the city's landfill. And if one million bulbs make it to the landfill, Dr. Hooper says the mercury can seep into the ground and contaminate our underground water supply that is sitting underneath the landfill.
City landfill officials say the landfill is lined with layers of thick plastic and clay. It's designed to protect anything underneath. But they say the material is not strong enough to withhold hazardous waste, like mass quantities of CFL bulbs.
"Recycling is going to be the true answer to keeping mercury out of the environment," said Dr. Hooper.
If recycling is the answer, who plans to do it? What about those major retailers selling the bulbs? Shouldn't they do their part to help the environment?
NewsChannel 11 searched inside major retailers like Wal-Mart, a store claiming to be a more environmentally friendly store, which has shelves of CFL bulbs. Home Depot sells many of the bulbs too. Neither store has a recycling program in place, right now, where you can walk in and drop off your burned out bulbs. But we discovered that may change really soon.
Wal-Mart is working on a recycling program in other cities that eventually may come to Lubbock. Wal-Mart couldn't give us any guarantee though.
Home Depot says they don't have plans to set up a recycling program, but they are selling eco-option bulbs that are safe for the environment.
"We are trying to put together a place so people can get rid of this stuff," said Brian Bearden, foreman for the city recycling center.
In the meantime, Bearden says by next year Lubbock residents will have a place to take the bulbs so they don't end up in the environment.
Some of you may be wondering what to do if you have a burned out bulb you need to get rid of right now. Well, Dr. Hooper says it's okay to throw it away in the trash if you have to, but make sure you put the bulb in two trash bags before throwing it in the dumpster.
There is also a health risk with CFL bulbs. Broken CFL bulbs can be dangerous to your children and pregnant women. That's where our investigation takes us next. We'll show you how to clean up a bulb if it breaks inside your home, when NewsChannel 11 Investigates continues Tuesday night on NewsChannel 11 at 10.
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