CFL Bulbs Have One Hitch: Toxic Mercury Wal-Mart wants to sell 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs this year. The bulbs save energy and reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that add to climate change. But there's a hitch: Each bulb contains about 5 milligrams of mercury, a toxic heavy metal. The EPA says they should be recycled.

CFL Bulbs Have One Hitch: Toxic Mercury

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Well, we asked our environment reporter. And here is NPR's Elizabeth Shogren with an explanation.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: It sounds like Karen Ellis is much better about reading the fine print than I am. I have compact fluorescent bulbs in my house. But when they burned out I threw them in the trash. I didn't know they contain mercury, and I didn't know they were supposed to be recycled. John Skinner told me I'm not alone. He's the executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. That's the trade group for trash and recycling companies and dumps.

He says even though it's legal in most states for people to throw out compact bulbs, it's not a good idea.

Mr. JOHN SKINNER (Solid Waste Association of North America): The problem with the bulbs is that they break before they get to the landfill. They'll break in the containers or they'll break in the dumpster or they'll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens.

SHOGREN: And he told me if a bulb broke near my house, the mercury could seep into the soil. That's bad because mercury is a neurotoxin. It's especially dangerous for children and fetuses. Okay. So, now I want to recycle, but it turns out it's not easy. Even cities that have curbside recycling won't take the bulbs, so you have to take them to a hazardous waste collection bay or a special facility. In my case, a Web site told me I'd have to drive 95 miles to get to the closest one.

Mr. PETE KELLER (Eco Lights Northwest): I think most people do want to recycle, but if it's not made easy, then it doesn't happen.

SHOGREN: Pete Keller works for Eco Lights Northwest, the only company in Washington State that recycles fluorescent lamps.

Mr. KELLER: And they're small enough that they fit in a trashcan. So by nature, I think most people are not recyclers. And so, if it's small enough to fit in a trash can, that's kind of where it ends up.

SHOGREN: The Environmental Protection Agency has been pushing Americans to buy more compact bulbs because they save electricity. But it hasn't gone out of its way to advertise the mercury problem. Wendy Reed, who works for the EPA, says the agency has been urging the stores that sell the bulbs to help to recycle them.

Ms. WENDY REED (Environmental Protection Agency): EPA is actively engaged with trying to find a solution that works for these retailers around recycling the product, because it's really, really important.

SHOGREN: But so far, she says, the biggest sellers of the bulbs haven't stepped up to the play.

Ms. REED: The only retailer that I know off that is recycling is IKEA.

SHOGREN: Reed says EPA is prodding other retailers, like Wal-Mart, to do more.

Ms. REED: We are working with Wal-Mart on it. We are making some progress, but no commitments have been made on the part of Wal-Mart.

SHOGREN: Wal-Mart didn't respond to my request for a comment on the issue. Wendy Reed says manufacturers are making some bulbs with less mercury, and the EPA wants retailers to sell those. But engineers say you can't cut mercury out completely. Some big companies are starting to talk to Congress about launching a national recycling program for the bulbs. Earl Jones is a senior counsel for General Electric, which has been making compact fluorescents for 20 years.

Mr. EARL JONES (General Electric): Given what we anticipate to be the significant increase in the use of this products, we're now beginning to look at and shortly will be discussing with legislators possibly a national solution here.

SHOGREN: In fact, Jones says he was having his first talks with congressional staffers today.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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