By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
It can seem a green contradiction: Compact fluorescent lights – those spiral energy-efficient bulbs used to fight global warming – contain mercury, a toxic metal. If the bulb breaks, mercury vapor can harm infants, pregnant women and young children. If tossed in landfills or incinerators, discarded bulbs can pollute the environment.
Now, as sales balloon, Maine legislators have voted overwhelmingly for first-in-the-nation legislation requiring manufacturers to reduce the mercury in all fluorescent lights, and pay for recycling each bulb safely. That cost is estimated to be 50 cents to $1 per bulb.
Maine Governor John Baldacci, a supporter, is expected to sign the bill, which was passed over the last week. Similar bills regulating compact fluorescent lights -- or CFLs, as they are called -- are pending in Massachusetts and Vermont.
“We want people to use CFLs, and this is going to make it much easier to recycle them at hardware stores and municipal collection drop-off centers for free,’’ said Michael Bender of the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project, which backed the bill. “Today, almost all of the bulbs are going in the trash where they can break. People aren’t aware of the exposure risk.”
Sales of the curly bulbs, which use about 75 percent less energy and can last many times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs, are skyrocketing, driven by consumers' growing awareness of global warming and the long-term cost savings.
More than 248 million compact fluorescents carrying the EPA’s “Energy Star” label sold in 2008 -- about 19 percent of the total lightbulb market. And sales are guaranteed to grow: A new federal law requires lights to become much more energy efficient starting in 2012.
Mercury is needed for the compact bulbs to produce light, and there are no known substitutes. No mercury is emitted when the bulbs burn, but a small amount is vaporized when they break, which can happen if people grasp the glass too hard as they install or remove the light, drop them, or throw them out in the trash. Mercury is a naturally occurring metal that accumulates in the body and can harm the nervous system of a fetus or young children if ingested in enough quantity.
Maine’s law, once it is signed by the governor, will encourage residents to drop off compact fluorescent bulbs for free at hardware stores, municipal trash collection sites and other places that now take other hazardous waste. Today, Maine residents have to pay up to a $1 to dispose of the bulbs in some cities and towns.
The legislation also requires that manufacturers publicize the need for compact fluorescent recycling -- as well as limit how much mercury can be in all fluorescent lights, including those found in office buildings and in street lamps.
Mark Kohorst, senior manager for environment and safety with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, said his group strongly supports recycling but the cost of doing so is extraordinarily high and needs to be shared.
"We are very much concerned about mercury in the products and that is why the industry has done so much to reduce" it in lamps, Kohorst said. His group would ideally like to see CFL recycling costs come from a surcharge on utility bills. "The cost of recycling is very close to the actual cost of the product," he said.
Now, only about 2 percent of CFLs are recycled, according to the EPA. Some companies, such as Home Depot and Ikea, provide CFL recycling, but most national hardware and other stores do not. Many states, including Massachusetts, Vermont and California, ban disposal of all fluorescent lights in trash.
Massachusetts has a law requiring light bulb manufacturers to reach a 70 percent recycling rate of household and commercial CFLs by 2011. Manufacturers in the state also must educate consumers about CFL recycling and there now are 433 places in the Bay State that take CFLs from consumers for free, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Several studies have examined mercury exposure from broken CFLs. Two conducted last year by the state of Maine and the Mercury Policy Project showed in many cases, immediately after a bulb was broken – and sometimes even after a cleanup was attempted – levels of mercury vapor exceeded federal guidelines for chronic (or extended) exposure by as much as 100 times. There is no federal guideline for acute (or immediate, shorter term) exposure.
"This bill gives consumers a quick, easy and free way to recycle energy-efficient light bulbs,'' said Matt Prindiville, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.