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EPA crackdown on mercury pollution illuminates lightbulb debate

Consumer Reports News: March 16, 2011 04:17 PM

Earlier today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first-ever national standards for mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants. The agency claims these standards could prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths, 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms, and 11,000 heart attacks a year.

“Today’s announcement is 20 years in the making, and is a significant milestone in the Clean Air Act’s already unprecedented record of ensuring our children are protected from the damaging effects of toxic air pollution,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in the news release. “With the help of existing technologies, we will be able to take reasonable steps that will provide dramatic protections to our children and loved ones, preventing premature deaths, heart attacks, and asthma attacks.”

So what's this all have to do with lightbulbs? As we reported last week, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are wrestling over the proposed phase-out of incandescent lightbulbs. One of the arguments made by those seeking to repeal the legislation is that alternative compact flourescent lightbulbs (CFLs) contain mercury. Consumer Reports testing of CFLs confirms this fact, though the mercury is a tiny fraction of what's contained in a typical fever thermometer. Energy Star-qualified CFLs have even less mercury, fewer than 5 milligrams for bulbs that use less than 25 watts.

Still, no mercury is good mercury, which is why, as part of Consumer Union's formal letter of support of the incandescent phase-out, we called on Congress to develop a comprehensive recycling program to recapture mercury or other possible toxics used in newer, energy-efficiency lightbulbs. But we went on to note that CFLs save between two and 10 times more mercury from the environment than is used in the bulb because their efficiency avoids mercury pollution that would otherwise be emitted from coal-fired power plants.

Today's EPA announcement underscores that point. Power plants are responsible for half of mercury and more than half of acid gas emissions in the U.S., the agency reports. In the power sector alone, coal-fired power plants are responsible for 99 percent of mercury emissions. The EPA's proposed standards could address that issue. And so could switching to CFLs.

—Daniel DiClerico 

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