Thomas Edison said two prescient things about the manufacturing of lightbulbs: “we now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb” and “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” Edison’s dream is realised in modern compact fluorescent lamp bulbs or CFLs, which provide cheap light in homes, schools and workplaces. Indeed they are becoming so popular that the traditional incandescent light bulbs are disappearing from the shelves and the European Union, the United States, Canada, Cuba and Venezuela are adopting CFLs as standard.
By switching to energy saving bulbs, EU citizens will save almost 40 TW·h (almost the electricity consumption of 11 million European households), leading to a reduction of about 15 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year.
CFLs are popular, not only because of the cheap light but they save 80% of the energy of incandescent bulbs and last fifteen times as long. They reduce carbon emissions which is vital for planetary survival. CFLs produce less heat which can allow significant savings in air conditioning in certain climates. They also provide a feel good factor because switching to CFLs allows people to make their homes greener and contribute to the green movement.
As laudable as these bulbs are, every new technology produces new side effects. CFLs can aggravate symptoms in people who already live with skin conditions that make them sensitive to light. Long hours at the office with a CFL desk light may cause skin and retinal damage due to ultraviolet exposure. Environmentally, CFLs are not ideal because they contain mercury which might be released into the water table through inefficient disposal and poison drinking water and wildlife habitats. Mercury is poisonous and breaking a CFL at home can have health repercussions. Additionally, although there is little published research on the health implications of using CFLs, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence that these bulbs can negatively impact the lives of people living with lupus, ME, eczema, dermatitis, migraine and epilepsy.
All that being said, the powers that be have taken the decision to switch on our behalf, as the older incandescent bulbs are being phased out and can no longer be bought in many countries. We get green electricity at a cheaper price and feel we are playing our part to battle climate change. Governments, NGOs and environmental organisations are promoting CFLs as a way for every person to play their part in preventing environmental damage. Many have taken up the call and use CFLs exclusively. People are trying to live in an environmentally sustainable way but the information that is bandied around by activists and organisations is not the whole truth.
Living in a globalised society means thinking globally and acting locally and we need to examine where and how CFLs are produced. CFLs are so much cheaper in the long run and many people buy household goods without questioning their origin. This is partly because we do not empathise with workers on the other side of the world and partly because ethically produced and fairly traded goods are not always on offer.
CFL use mercury, a poison. Whatever health issues may occur to the user when CFLs are broken, the health of the worker who produces the bulb is put at much more serious risk. Mercury damages the central nervous system, endocrine system, kidneys, and other organs, and affects the mouth, gums, and teeth. Exposure over long periods of time or heavy exposure to mercury vapor can result in brain damage and ultimately death. Mercury and its compounds are particularly toxic to fetuses and infants; women who have been exposed to mercury in pregnancy have sometimes given birth to children with serious birth defects.
Most CFLs are manufactured in China. Some factories are high tech and others more like sweatshops. Mercury testing has been carried out on hundred of employees producing CFLs and a survey of 18 factories near Shanghai shows that exposure levels to mercury were higher for workers making the new CFLs than for other lights containing the metal. According to a report in the Nanfang Daily newspaper, the tests of a single factory found 68 out of 72 workers were so badly poisoned they required hospitalisation
According to The Times
A specialist medical journal, published by the health ministry, describes another compact fluorescent lightbulb factory in Jinzhou, in central China, where 121 out of 123 employees had excessive mercury levels. One man’s level was 150 times the accepted standard.
The same journal identified a compact fluorescent lightbulb factory in Anyang, eastern China, where 35% of workers suffered mercury poisoning, and industrial discharge containing the toxin went straight into the water supply.
Chinese workers are paying the price of our green energy. The industrial discharge is killing the rivers and poisoning the water. While the West may go green, more mercury is discharging into the oceans and causing sustained pollution. Now, many might switch out at this point because human rights are violated all over the world and disinterest coupled with compassion fatigue ensures the status quo. What is is important to realise is that mercury-loaded fish is served on dinner platters all over the world. The oceans are connected and the repercussions of our disinterest are global. By fueling the desire for cheaper greener electricity, we are literally poisoning ourselves. Until that fact is assimulated, nothing will change.
The Chinese Government appears to be taking steps to promote health and safety at work but due to the paucity of information, I cannot tell whether these steps are propaganda or statements of intent, from this distance. Certainly, China has taken measures to limit exports of minerals, the mining of which poisons the land and people.
Unfortunately, mercury is not the only distressor in the production of CFLs. Most green technology is made possible by rare earth metals or minerals – hybrid cars, wind turbines and CFLs of course. China holds the majority of rare earths and their exploitation has led to environmental devastation and severe health degradation. As a result, China has clamped down on mining while cutting export quotas to conserve resources and protect the environment. Thus manufacturers look elsewhere for minerals. While there are rare earth mines in Australia, the US and South Africa, in other countries rare minerals are a source of conflict. There are no health and safety regulations in Congo where conflict minerals contribute to the decades long civil war. Conflict minerals are directly related to the use of rape as a weapon of war
The United Nations has investigated the illicit mineral trade in Congo and found that
The rebels have found a ready market for their loot with legitimate companies mostly in the West and China… The proceeds from these sales are fueling the deadliest conflict since World War II, with as many as 5 million people killed over the past decade and more than 200,000 women violated.
Congolese rebels, who’ve made rape a preferred strategy of intimidating nearby villages in mining regions, buy weapons with proceeds from mines they run illegally, often with forced labor.
Wallstrom said rebel leaders organized mass rapes as a reward for their troops and as part of their looting of villages. She added that the violence helped rebels assert control over mining areas, where many local men normally sell small amounts of minerals they find on their own.
The desire for green energy is fueling to this situation. Western democracies have either chosen to not see the damage or have decided that the good of the wealthy outweighs the good of the majority. We want to do our part but have been duped. Even environmental NGOs, such as Greenpeace, appear to be lacking in joined up thinking. Does the damage caused by carbon emissions outweigh the health of millions and the poisoning of land, rivers and oceans? Do carbon emissions outweigh rape as a weapon of war?
The arguments in favour of CFLs can only be seriously considered in a vacuum. But with lives being ruined and the environment destroyed in the production of CFLs, a reconsideration of the issues is urgently needed. Living in a globalised society, these concerns belong to all of us. There is little point in cutting carbon emissions in Europe if the environmental and human cost is too high.