Cool, efficient and environmentally correct, compact fluorescent light bulbs are selling by the hundreds of millions.
But even as they're cutting utility bills and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the bulbs are also creating a new environmental headache.
Compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs, contain a small amount of mercury, a potent human toxin that is federally regulated as hazardous waste.
As used bulbs are thrown away, tons of mercury could eventually find its way into the environment.
Break a CFL in your home and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises that you clear people and pets from the room, open the windows and shut off the furnace blower before tackling the cleanup.
State and federal regulators say the answer is recycling for all household CFLs. But recycling programs can be scarce and inconvenient for consumers.
The Maryland Department of the Environment says fewer than half of the local jurisdictions in Maryland recycle CFLs.
"I have a bucket of bulbs in my basement, and they're going to stay there until they do make it easier," said Brad Heavner, who is state director for Environment Maryland, a public interest advocacy group.
National retailers, which sold most of the 300 million CFLs purchased last year, generally do not take them back for recycling. "We think they should, and we're working on them," said Paul Abernathy, executive director of the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers, which represents the 20 largest commercial mercury recyclers in the nation.
Because CFLs consume a quarter of the power and last six to 10 times longer than incandescents, the twisty bulbs are the darlings of energy conservation programs.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that if every American household replaced just one incandescent bulb with a CFL, the energy saved could light more than 3 million homes, or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 800,000 cars off the road.
Once too clunky and costly to be very appealing, they have become better and cheaper in recent years, and consumers have responded.
Wal-Mart has promoted CFLs, and they have grown from 5 percent of household bulb sales in 2005 to 16 percent in October, said company spokeswoman Tara Raddohl. But the company had disappointing consumer response from recycling events and has chosen to pressure manufacturers to reduce mercury content rather than implement large-scale recycling programs at its stores, she said.
State and local governments have begun to mandate their use in public buildings, both to save energy and to respond to political pressure for action to curb global warming.
But what do we do when they finally do burn out?
Whispers of risk
"Everybody is promoting these based on energy efficiency, but people are only whispering about the environmental risk if the mercury gets released," said Abernathy.
Under federal law, large users of fluorescent bulbs and tubes aren't permitted to send them to municipal landfills. The bulbs must be recycled or sent to designated hazardous waste facilities.
Smaller businesses and households are exempt, but the EPA urges consumers to recycle spent CFLs so the mercury, glass and other components can be recovered.
Nine states and a growing number of local governments have gone further, requiring recycling for all bulbs containing mercury. Maryland is not among them.
Some environmental groups regard the amount of mercury in CFLs as a minor worry compared with the hundreds of tons released annually, most of it from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants.
The Natural Resources Defense Council notes on its Web site that the mercury in a discarded CFL - and in the coal burned to power it over its lifetime - would release 8 milligrams of mercury. That's less than half the 17.6 milligrams emitted by the coal burned to light a less-efficient incandescent bulb for the same period of time.
"Recycling is always important for anything you throw out," said the NRDC's Julia Bovey. But "we keep so much mercury out of the air by using cleaner light bulbs ... that no matter what happens with the light bulb, we're still cutting down on the amount of mercury" released.
The best way to address the issue, she said, "is to speed up the next generation of energy-efficient light bulbs that won't have mercury in them." Those include light-emitting diode (LED) lamps - still very costly and several years from household use.
Handle with care
Everyone seems to acknowledge the need to handle CFLs with care.
"It's a tiny amount [of mercury in a CFL], but it is mercury," said Mark Kohorst, senior manager for environmental health and safety at the National Electronics Manufacturers' Association. "Our members have always generally supported recycling."
So how tiny is "tiny"?
Compact fluorescents contain an average 5 milligrams of mercury - a speck that would barely cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. A mercury fever thermometer, by comparison, holds 100 times that much.
But breaking a single bulb can be a health concern if the mercury is inhaled. A study by Maine's Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management found that, after breaking a single CFL bulb, mercury concentrations in a room often exceeded state clean air guidelines, and briefly soared to more than 166 times the limit of 300 nanogram per cubic meter. Vacuuming only stirs up what remains, and the vacuum itself can be permanently contaminated.
The warnings have prompted worry among some consumers, such as John H. Clemson of Ruxton. "I just think the [small] percentage of people that are going to be that careful makes it a product that shouldn't be sold," he said.
Clemson fears people pointed to CFLs as a solution without considering the ramifications. "Everybody's really lazy about doing research," he said. "Who is going to start another recycling bin for light bulbs?"
'Race to the bottom'
CFL manufacturers are in a "race to the bottom" to reduce the mercury content even more, Kohorst said.
Wal-Mart's Raddohl said her company's suppliers have reduced the mercury in their CFLs to as little as 2.5 milligrams - half the industry standard.
But it adds up. The recycling industry estimates that more than 300 million compact fluorescents were sold in the United States last year - more than 100 million by Wal-Mart alone. As few as 2 percent are being recycled.
That compares with about 25 percent of the 700 million mercury vapor lamps sold to business and industry.
The rest end up in the trash.
Recycling programs for household CFLs can be hard to find.
"I don't think they are adequate at all," said Environment Maryland's Heavner. "There are options, depending on where you live. But it should be easier everywhere."
New York, California, Florida and Minnesota, plus five New England states and a growing number of local governments now require that all CFLs be recycled.
Md. sites are few
In Maryland, the MDE Web site lists CFL recycling programs for only 10 of Maryland's 24 local jurisdictions. Identifying locations and schedules, and getting there, can be a chore.
The MDE lists just one recycling drop-off site for Baltimore County. That's the Eastern Sanitary Landfill, a 25-mile drive from Catonsville and 33 miles from Parkton. Or, residents can wait for a Household Hazardous Waste collection event.
Baltimore City does not accept CFLs for recycling.
Harford County residents must cart CFLs to the Scarboro landfill. Anne Arundel County residents must drop them off at a monthly event. Howard County accepts them only on Saturdays, April through November, at the Alpha Ridge landfill.
Carroll County will accept fluorescent bulbs for the first time on April 26, at an HHW event in Westminster.
Some stores willing
All IKEA stores and some Ace and Tru-Value hardware stores will take back spent CFL bulbs.
But big box stores "have been much more reluctant to go down this path," Kohorst said. "They worry about spills and breakage and employee training. They see it as a very complicated and troublesome avenue to go down."
Sun reporter Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.
For information on local recycling programs for fluorescent bulbs, go to mde.state.md.us/Programs/LandPrograms/Solid_Waste/cfl_mercury.asp
How to Handle a Broken Bulb
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends taking precautions when cleaning up compact fluorescent bulbs because they contain small amounts of mercury - much less than a standard thermometer:
Send people and pets out of the room. Open windows and air the room out for 15 minutes. Shut off forced-air heating and air-conditioning systems.
Scoop up glass fragments and powder with a stiff paper or cardboard and seal them in a glass jar or plastic bag.
Use sticky tape to pick up any remaining debris. Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or wet wipes, and place them in the jar or bag.
If vacuuming is necessary, remove the bag after you're done, or wipe the canister and dispose of everything in the plastic bag with the other debris.
Immediately place the debris bag or jar outside, and dispose of them as required by your state or local government - at a recycling center if necessary.
The next few times you vacuum, open the windows and shut off the forced-air systems before you start, and for 15 minutes after you're through.