EPA's Mercurial Hypocrisy

by Steve Milloy

How cynical is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the potential mercury hazard of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs)?

Last week the EPA issued new guidance for the clean-up of mercury-containing CFLs.

Atypically minimizing any potential health risks and arrogantly assuming that people patronize the agency’s web site, the EPA’s media release states,

CFLs contain a small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. When a CFL breaks, some of the mercury is released as vapor and may pose potential health risks. The guidance and brochure will provide simple, user friendly directions to help prevent and reduce exposure to people from mercury pollution. [Emphasis added]

But consider that EPA’s “Mercury and Hazardous Chemicals in Schools: A Manual for Students in Southeast Asia” (April 2008) states that:

Just as there are no safe uses of mercury and mercury-containing equipment in schools, there are no safe uses for these products in homes, either. Tell your parents about the toxic effects of mercury, and encourage them to remove all mercury products from your home.

Also consider that EPA says that eating the mercury from a broken thermometer is safer than inhaling mercury vapor (i.e., how you would be exposed to mercury from a broken CFL):

It is not uncommon for children to break fever thermometers in their mouths. Mercury that is swallowed in such cases poses low risk comparison [sic] to the risk of breathing mercury vapor.

Consider what Brown University researchers had to say in an August 2008 study of CFL breakage published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology:

Some [CFL] lamps are inevitably broken accidentally during shipping, retail sales, consumer use, and recycling and release a portion of their mercury inventory as volatile vapor, which is the dominant mercury form in the early stages of lamp life. Inhalation exposure is a concern because 80% of inhaled [mercury] is physiologically absorbed.

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) occupational exposure limit (8 h, 5-day week time average) is 100 [micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3)].
  • The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended exposure limit is 50 μg/m3, while American Conference of Governmental and Industrial Hygienists recommends 25 μg/m3 under the same conditions.
  • Because children are more susceptible, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recommends 0.2 μg/m3 level as a safe continual exposure limit for children.

As an illustration of the effects of CFL breakage, the release of only 1 mg of [mercury] vapor (~20% of the Hg inventory in a single CFL) into a 500 m3 room (10 × 10 × 5m) yields 2.0 μg/m3 or ten times the ATSDR-recommended level of 0.2 μg/m3 in the absence of ventilation. [Footnotes omitted, and bullets and emphasis added]

So how much mercury was released into the air when these researchers fractured CFLs in their study? According to the Brown researchers,

The release is initially rapid producing vapor concentrations from 200−800 μg/m3 during the first hour, which far exceed the OSHA occupational limits.

And if you go to EPA’s IRIS data base, you’ll see that the EPA’s Reference Concentration (RfC or permissible exposure via inhalation) for elemental mercury is 0.3 μg/m3. Note that the reported 200-800 μg/m3 air concentrations upon bulb breakage are somewhat greater  than the EPA’s RfC (by 667 to 2,667 times to be precise).

The EPA promotes the safety of CFLs  in order to advance its jihad against greenhouse gases. The agency would apparently rather have you and/or your children exposed to possibly thousands of times more mercury than the agency itself deems safe than to have you use an incandescent bulb and emit an ounce or so more of CO2 per hour of bulb use.

Were CFLs not useful in the EPA’s cause —  let’s say they were just a funny looking light bulb sold as a novelty item — there can be little doubt that the agency would have long ago taken action to ban them as needlessly unsafe. The agency has stated, after all, “there are no safe uses for mercury-containing products] in homes” and children should tell their parents “to remove” them from homes.

Would you rather be exposed to possibly thousands of more times mercury than the EPA says is safe or....
... or would you rather have your power plant emit an extra ounce or so of carbon dioxide per hour of bulb use?

One common requirement for science, law and government to function as intended is consistency. Exposure to low levels of mercury is either safe or it is not. But the EPA wants it both ways, depending on the purpose being served.

In the realm of federal regulation, this sort of hypocrisy would seem to be proscribed by the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) as “arbitrary and capricious.” When the APA was enacted in 1946, then-Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran called it “a bill of rights for the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose affairs are controlled or regulated in one way or another by agencies of the Federal Government.”

But since there is typically no meaningful way for anyone to enforce that law against the EPA, it is a mere vestige of Congress’ post-New Deal efforts to make the burgeoning federal bureaucracy accountable to the people that pay for, and are impacted by it.

Maybe that accountability is something that the 112th Congress, which begins this week, can begin to reinstate.