Article published Tuesday , June 03, 2008, at Fox News.

Looking at Fluorescent Bulbs in Different Light

By John R. Lott, Jr.

No matter how well-meaning, politicians frequently fail to understand all the consequences of their laws. Real world costs, the costs and benefits faced by those who will actually have to live with the regulations, often elude those who pass these rules. Yet, even by those depressing standards, problems with the mandated that people will soon be forced to use stand out.

The advantages of compact fluorescent light bulbs are obvious. While the fluorescent bulbs can cost 10 times more than incandescent ones, fluorescent bulbs use 75 percent less electricity and last up to 10 times longer.

But longer life and energy savings come with a caveat — the fluorescent bulbs must be used for at least 15 minutes once they are turned on and ideally for at least several hours at a time. Turning them off quickly after you have turned them on dramatically reduces their life expectancy. Not being able to use light bulbs simply when it is convenient is a cost the consumers will bear even if politicians didn’t factor it into their estimates of savings.

But those are just a tiny fraction of the other real world costs. As many now know, the compact fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury. The hazards are not trivial. One study found that “immediately after the bulb was broken - and sometimes even after a cleanup was attempted - levels of mercury vapor exceeded federal guidelines for chronic exposure by as much as 100 times.”

The EPA has come up with detailed advice on how to deal with how to put bulbs into sockets, cleanup spills, dispose of bulbs, and even safely transport them. For example, drop cloths should be placed on the floor under sockets in case bulbs are dropped, to cushion the fall. But if that fails, the cleanup process becomes incredibly involved.

First, the EPA warns to immediately evacuate the room of all people and pets, and to ensure that no one walks through the breakage area on their way out of the room. Windows must be opened and no one may re-enter the room for at least 15 minutes. Any central heating or air conditioning system should be shut down.

Take the relatively simple cleanup instructions for hard surfaces. Quoting from the EPA warning:

• Carefully scoop up glass pieces and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.

• Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.

• Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.

• Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

More rules apply the next several times one cleans the area. Each time one vacuums the area again: open the windows and shut off any central heating or air conditioning system. The windows should also remain open for at least 15 minutes after the vacuuming is completed.

It is not just customers who face risks. Undoubtedly many people will simply dispose of used compact fluorescent light bulbs in the trash. As John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North American, the group representing those who handle the trash, warned:

"The problem with the bulbs is that they'll break before they get to the landfill. They'll break in containers, or they'll break in a dumpster or they'll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens.”

Even transporting your new unbroken light bulbs creates all sorts of problems. Warnings state that the bulbs be put in containers with tight fitting lids and further suggesting the containers be filled with kitty litter around the bulbs to protect them from breaking due to sudden shocks. There is even the helpful suggestion that the container be labelled “Mercury — DO NOT OPEN.” Of course, you should transport these packages in a car trunk, but if you must keep them in the passenger compartment, make sure that it is well ventilated.

These are just some of the hassles to this latest “do good” regulation. Politicians place a premium on saving energy to the exclusion of saving people’s time, or, in this case, even their health.

When one looks at the problems with these bulbs, it becomes very understandable why people aren’t rushing to own them. Possibly people are a little smarter than the Democrat controlled congress that passed these rules

*John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.

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