We have all heard the expression, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” We have yet another good intention leading us to somewhere we don’t want to go, this time with Mercury from compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs. See the following article by Suzanne Bohan found in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times:
Chromium VI was used in various manufacturing operations in the San Fernando Valley of southern California during and after World War II. Now we are dealing with dozens of drinking water wells contaminated with this chemical.
Perchlorate is an oxidizer that has been used at many sites around the United States. Now we are dealing with hundreds of drinking water wells contaminated with this chemical.
Methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) was mandated for use as a gasoline additive in California, to reduce automobile emissions. Now we are dealing with dozens of drinking water wells contaminated with this chemical.
These are just three recent examples of chemicals that were manufactured and used with “good intentions,” but have brought us significant grief due to unforeseen and unintended consequences.
And history seems to be repeating itself with the mercury from CFLs.
According to Ms. Bohan, mercury is “a potent neurotoxin that’s on the worst-offending list of environmental contaminants.” As a neurotoxin, it is known to cause dementia, among other problems. And that explains today’s photo of the “Mad Hatter” from the story “Alice in Wonderland.” This was a stereotype of the time period when the story was written. Hatters often went “mad.” Not angry mad, just goofy, demented mad. And it was caused by the widespread use of mercury in the manufacture and cleaning of hats.
Most substances have a similar, “schizophrenic” character: if used properly, they can be extremely beneficial; if used improperly, they can pose serious health risks. Educating users on safe handling and disposal can effectively deal with the risks. But with CFLs, we need to educate everyone — not just a small crew at a single industrial site!
That’s because, in the case of CFLs, it is essentially mandated now that everyone use them. Is everyone being properly trained on the safe use and disposal of these products? Will everyone seek out the elusive safe disposal sites, or will everyone just put them in the normal trash, just as everyone has done for a century with incandescent light bulbs?
I think we know the answer to these questions. And I think we can readily tell what road we’re on, by looking at all the “good intentions” upon which we are treading.
In a few years, I’m betting that drinking water folks will be addressing widespread mercury contamination, because as a nation we were too short-sighted to see the consequences of this fundamental transformation of the lighting industry.
Sometimes I think we’re already “mad.”