The Mercury Connection – Fluorescent vs. Incandescent

The EPA’s power plant emission ruling makes fluorescents much worse mercury polluters than incandescents.

This year the fluorescent light lobby has publicizing estimates that show that incandescent lights cause more mercury emission than fluorescents because they use more power. This is because coal and oil burning power plants currently emit 50-60 tons/year of mercury. Estimates vary according to which government source is used.

click for our discussions on environmental pollution

Those calculations are obsolete.  The EPA’s ruling last week (see our post) on pollutant emission by all plants will force the remaining large coal/oil burning power plants to install remediation technologies.  Once complete (they have 4 years), the mercury emission from all power plant sources will be 1/10 of what they are today (December 2011).  Not just mercury poisoning, but asthma-causing particulates, or acid rain generating SO2; a whole host of bad issues will be lifted from our countryside.

Implications For Fluorescent Lighting (FL)


Fig 1  Sources of atmospheric mercury 2016

Fig. 1 shows the estimated mercury releases in 2016. We estimated the fluorescent light industry will cause a final steady state emission of 2 to 3 tons of mercury compounds per year.   The total power industry will emit no more than 6 tons/year.  Discarded fluorescents will release half of what the coal burners do.  They are not a leading source of mercury emission, but are significant

Is there a trend?  From the 1950s onwards the automotive industry deliberately undercut rail transportation, paying cities to pull up trolly tracks by cut-rate gasoline buses, and heavily promoting 18 wheeled trucks over efficient freight trains for cross country commodity transport. When made in earlier years, this sounded like commie talk.  But it continues: why were rugged tape cassettes made obsolete by easily damaged CDs of the same capacity? Why have rugged glass food containers been replaced by multilayer plastic bottles where contents can go bad after 20 to 30 months? (Food can go bad in glass jars, too, but mostly by incomplete sterilization or poor sealing.)  Why ban mercury thermometers (about ¾ ton/yr) for brand new IR thermometers that do not work without batteries? You probably have examples from your own experience.

Who stands to gain when the population is forced to trash reliably functioning goods and replace them by new items?  Not so original advice:  follow the money.  For example, who gains by selling everyone entirely new lighting systems?  I share a nightmare – we shift to the new lights and they really do last “10 or 20” times the current generation of incandescent bulbs. Sales in a  steady economy must fall by this factor, and manufactures must raise per unit prices by this amount, to stay in business. A $2.50 CFL must rise to $25 were today’s sales volume to drop by 10. No problem, if you are in the elite income bracket (annual income over $250,000).  If you make median income or less ($50,000) you may not be able to replace a burned out bulb when its price is so high.  Indoor lighting could become a rich man’s privilege (we might return to lighting-as-conspicuous-consumption as in the 1890s when Thorstein Veblen was working on his Theory of The Leisure Class).

Not all regulations fall under the “follow the money” rule.  Seat belt laws did not require junking all current automobiles but saved many lives.  Unleaded gas laws, the same thing.  The initial effect was an increase in price of most of the regulated goods, but that effect went away and huge benefits came about.  FLs do not fall in this category.

Don’t believe all the hype around fluorescent lighting  <as discussed elsewhere>.

  • Higher energy efficiency.   If you leave the light on 10 hours a day, this is absolutely right. No one would leave an incandescent light on like that.  FLs vastly dominate in businesses.  Be sure to leave all your lights on all the time, the same way they do.
  • Longer useful lifetime.  Not by much, if you burn them out by continuously switching FL lamps on and off.   Second: not if they made in countries lacking a quality ethic, willing to take shortcuts and ship defective or dangerous items.  Third: brightness fades with months of use.  Even if it does last, after a couple years a bulb will be about half as bright as when new.
  • Lower pollution.  The point of this post.  FL discards will pollute mercury at about half the rate of power plants.  The heavy metals in the phosphor layer are discussed here.
  • Cheaper.  FLs left on all day can be more expensive when compared to an incandescent that is on only when needed. Already discussed: market price increases due to drop in purchases.

I think that we are moving to another level of dependence through off-shore lighting with even fewer manufacturing jobs.


Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2011 Dec 28
Listed under   Natural Resources    …thread   Natural Resources >  Pollution
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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