I'm a fan of CFLs, but I can understand how the small amount of mercury in them can worry some. If you're worried about the tiny bit of mercury in CFLs, I can't tell you one way or another how to decide for your home, all I can do is give you the facts that are available, and let you make your own decision. What I can do though is call out those who (whether they know it or not) try to mislead others with fears about mercury.
There are three important things to keep in perspective when looking at mercury and CFLs. I covered the first 2 in our post written over two years ago titled Mercury and CFL recycling:
1: The amount of mercury in CFL bulbs is a very small amount. From our earlier post:
The biggest drawback to these light bulbs is the small amount of mercury contained in them. As stated in this handy factsheet created by Energy Star, the average CFL contains 4 milligrams of mercury. I know you’re scratching your head trying to visualize 4 mg. Remember the old thermometers you had to stick under your tongue when the “hand to the forehead” wasn’t enough. That contained 500 mg (125 CFLs) of Mercury! That’s not saying the Mercury in CFL’s doesn’t matter, it just means that we have to be reasonable with objections.
2: Many places now recycle CFLs for you! Use this handy recycle station finder from Earth 911 to find a place to recycle your CFLs.
I hit on the number 3 thing to keep in perspective recently when we received a comment on our Best Lighting Cost Comparison post from Jackson, who is ill-informed on mercury emissions and the environment, and I didn't appreciate his smug attitude. His comment:
"Are we all so caught up in feeling good about being “Green” that we completely negate the future feelings of what it will be like to pay more for drinking water than we do for gasoline? That’s right everyone, Mercury is a poison. Perhaps Edison was right in the first place? CFL’s are what happen when you allow government to run your lives. Good luck with all your “Feelings” of saving the planet. Such small thinkers, tisk tisk. I am burning all incan’s and have enough stashed away to last me a lifetime. One thing for certain I will be greener than all of you CFL lovers."
And here was my reply:
"Hey Jackson….do tell me what part of the country you live in? Unless it’s the Northwest, I’m guessing the majority of your electricity comes from coal. From this link from Popular Mechanics comparing Mercury emitted from incandescent vs. CFLs:
About 50 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. is generated by coal-fired power plants. When coal burns to produce electricity, mercury naturally contained in the coal releases into the air. In 2006, coal-fired power plants produced 1,971 billion kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity, emitting 50.7 tons of mercury into the air—the equivalent amount of mercury contained in more than 9 billion CFLs (the bulbs emit zero mercury when in use or being handled).
Approximately 0.0234 mg of mercury—plus carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide—releases into the air per 1 kwh of electricity that a coal-fired power plant generates. Over the 7500-hour average range of one CFL, then, a plant will emit 13.16 mg of mercury to sustain a 75-watt incandescent bulb but only 3.51 mg of mercury to sustain a 20-watt CFL (the lightning equivalent of a 75-watt traditional bulb). Even if the mercury contained in a CFL was directly released into the atmosphere, an incandescent would still contribute 4.65 more milligrams of mercury into the environment over its lifetime.
3: Coal burned to produce electricity to power incandescents emits more mercury than CFLs would!
Of course this mercury is spread out in our environment, and not right in your home, but on a national policy perspective, I would encourage everyone to use CFLs so our collective environment (and thus the land we live on and the food we eat) is less contaminated. Now, if I had a small child at home, I would still use CFLs, I would just be ever vigilant to ensure the CFLs didn't break in my home. If one did break, I would follow these steps to clean up a broken CFL properly.
I just wonder if all of these people concerned with mercury in CFLs refused to put a thermometer in their mouth when they were little? Remember, an old mercury thermometer had 125 times more mercury than a CFL!!! And you put it in your mouth!!! Where was all the outrage then?
Speaking of putting mercury in your mouth, this paper compares mercury exposure from a broken CFL to the amount of mercury you're exposed to eating fish! The results:
...if simple common sense is used in disposing of the broken CFL, the resulting exposure to mercury is equivalent to about 1/50th of an ounce—a single nibble—of Albacore tuna!
Make your own choices, but make sure you have the facts and you put everything in perspective!
This is a great fact sheet from Energy Star about Mercury and CFLs.