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The Light Bulb Liars

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

What if in 2025 a husband and wife decide they want to use old-fashioned incandescent bulbs in the sanctuary of their home? Will the light-bulb left defend their right to privacy and freedom of choice?

Don't count on it. Many Americans may not know it yet, but the federal government has already effectively banned the type of light bulb most of us use today.

In 2007, President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act, mandating that household light bulbs use incrementally less electricity starting in 2012 and culminating in 2020, when they must use less than 70 percent of the electricity conventional incandescent bulbs use today.

Compact fluorescent bulbs already meet this standard. The congressional authors of the law understood they were, in essence, phasing out incandescent bulbs.

They did this, they said, to help save the planet from overheating. But the light-bulb left did not weigh -- or care about -- the unintended consequences of their crusade.

One of these consequences is the potential for an environment disaster in your family room.

You see, fluorescent bulbs contain mercury -- a bad, bad pollutant and health hazard that the Environmental Protection Agency has been sounding alarms about for years.

This put the EPA in a tough spot. On the one hand, it needed to applaud the politically correct use of fluorescent bulbs to save the planet. On the other hand, it needed to warn people that if they break a fluorescent bulb in their home it could poison the dog, the kid and the wall-to-wall rug.

So, the EPA published blatantly self-contradictory instructions about what to do if mercury spills at your house.

The first section is titled: "What Never to Do With a Mercury Spill."

It says: "Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury (but see the 'What to Do if a Fluorescent Light Bulb Breaks' section below for more specific instructions about vacuuming broken fluorescent light bulbs). The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure."

Now, an obvious question: If you should "never" vacuum mercury because it "will put mercury into the air" and increase the exposure for your pets and preteens, why should you vacuum broken fluorescent light bulbs that contain mercury?

The EPA's answer would be farcical were the government not trying to force people to use fluorescent bulbs.

If you use fluorescent bulbs, says EPA, you will need an evacuation plan in the event of a break. "Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out," says EPA's directive. "Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more. Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system if you have one."

When you can safely return, says EPA, start throwing away your belongings. "If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or the bedding should be thrown away," says the directive.

Never clean any washable thing -- no matter how costly or sentimentally valued -- if it has been near a broken fluorescent bulb. "Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage," says the directive.

Imagine: The mercury in these bulbs is so bad it is bad for your sewage.

But what if a fluorescent bulb breaks on the wall-to-wall carpet where your toddler crawls? What then? Suddenly, it is OK to use a vacuum on a mercury spill.

"Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag," says the directive. "Use sticky tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder. If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken. Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag."

But don't throw that sealed bag away. It may be too toxic for your garbage can. "Some states do not allow such trash disposal," says EPA's directive. "Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken out to a local recycling center."

Apparently, some light bulbs escaped the standards in the 2007 law. So, last week, President Obama's Energy Department closed the loophole by issuing new efficiency regulations targeted at these bulbs that will take effect in 2012.

In a June 29 speech, Obama described the move as part of an energy efficiency initiative that "will create jobs in the short run and save money and reduce dangerous emissions in the long run."

After reading Obama's speech, I drove over to the local big-box hardware store and studied the products in the light-bulb aisle. The store stocked exactly one brand of compact fluorescent bulb for conventional light fixtures. The 75-watt version cost $3.47 per bulb -- compared to .22 cents for a 75-watt incandescent bulb.

On the back of the fluorescent-bulb package -- just below a warning about the mercury content -- the following words were inscribed: "Made in China."

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