Heroically chewing on the CFL issue

"Why don't you care about the mercury?"

So asks Ann Althouse in a post about CFL mercury dangers.

I can't resist why questions. Basically, my answer is the same that it has been to "Why don't you care about the lead?"

Because the dangers are overstated.

But speaking of overstated dangers, I cannot help noticing that when Glenn Reynolds linked the Ann Althouse post, he quipped that he mails his CFLs to Al Gore. I'm wondering about something. Did Glenn know about Al Gore's Carnegie University commencement speech about the "third hero generation" yesterday? It was relegated to page B-11 of today's Philadelphia Inquirer, and I cannot find the story at the Inquirer web site (why such shabby treatment of the Goreacle?), so I'll just use the AP version:

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Former Vice President Al Gore on Sunday told graduates of Carnegie Mellon University they could become part of the next "hero generation" in American history by solving environmental problems.

In a commencement address before a record crowd of about 10,000 people, the Nobel laureate said there had already been two "special generations" of Americans: the one that founded the country and the one that defeated fascism during World War II.

"You, I hope and expect, will be called upon to be part of the third hero generation in American history," by countering the threat of global warming, he said.

Never mind the Civil War, or any of the other wars in our history. The importance of today's environmentalists exceeds them, and ranks just below that of the World War II generation. I guess overstated dangers need overstated heroes. Because the planet is at stake:
"We face a planetary emergency," Gore said. "The concentrations of global warming pollution have been rising at an unprecedented pace and have now given the planet a fever."

Carnegie Mellon had provided "great leadership in confronting what I regard as the most serious crisis our civilization has ever confronted," partly by becoming a major buyer of retail wind power, he said.

Alternative energy sources such as the sun and wind can replace fossil fuels, Gore said, but "we need one ingredient that you represent. We need political will; we need your dedication; we need your hearts."

But if CFLs are laden with mercury, isn't it a heroic act of derring-do to screw them in? Why didn't Gore say anything about needing your lightbulbs or your mercury? And in light of this earlier report that Al Gore would be "flying in on a big fat jet to speak at Carnegie Mellon's graduation," I think the mercury being leached by lightbulbs is a small price to pay. Surely Al Gore knows that in war, it is often necessary to destroy things in order to save them. Seen this way, his jetting around and other acts of conspicuous consumption, while clearly destructive of the earth, are nonetheless forms of wartime heroism, as is the CFL mercury pollution. Thus, while Glenn may have been joking, I think a good argument can be made that sending CFLs to Al Gore can be seen as recontextualized Goreian heroism -- a right and bright idea for the rightest and the brightest of the Special Generation.

Because the fact is that CFLs -- and the people who want to save the world with them -- are under increasing assault. And I don't just mean from the right wing anti-environmentalist agenda. In very green-conscious England, there is a serious move to preserve incandescents -- for health reasons:

Conventional or "incandescent" bulbs are being phased out in a voluntary agreement with retailers and will no longer be on sale from December 2011.

Campaigners want people who have light sensitive conditions to be able to continue to buy conventional bulbs for their homes.

They warned that employers must also be able to purchase incandescent lighting as employees have a right to such adjustments under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Andrew Langford, chief executive officer of the Skin Care Campaign, one of the charities involved, said: "Incandescent light bulbs are the only source of electric light for many thousands of people with light sensitive conditions.

"Add to this the thousands of people whose conditions or treatments may secondarily cause them to be light sensitive, and you have a large number of people potentially being isolated in the dark....

I'm no environmentalist, but the anti-CFL talk brings out the mercury apologist in me.

When I was a kid, we used to play with the stuff. I mean both mercury and lead, and not only did no one care, but nothing terrible ever happened. Why am I still alive?

As I've pointed out repeatedly, my mouth is loaded with mercury, and in some places, I'm considered too toxic to be cremated. The anti-mercury activists want mercury amalgam banned, not because it's dangerous, but in order to bolster their credibility (and that of the anti-fishing movement, which which loves to scream about mercury).

I'm not buying into it. This doesn't mean I'm going to break open a thermometer and drink a shot of mercury (or even break one of my CFLs and eat the contents) but there is such a thing as common sense.

The following chart compares "the EPA value to mothers breast milk, bottled water, canned tuna fish and amalgam dental fillings":


As you can see, my mouth is far, far more dangerous than anyone's CFL. Or even the salmon on your plate!


I guess that means if you sprinkle the contents of a CFL on your tuna sandwich and eat it, you'd still be getting 10 times the amount of mercury from the fish.

Unless you chew too hard....

UPDATE: From commenter dre, a reminder of the Gore Effect:

The Gore Effect works. Pittsburgh weather yesterday 5/18/08:

Normal (KPIT) 72 ?F / 22 ?C 50 ?F / 10 ?C
Yesterday 64 ?F / 17 ?C 44 ?F / 6 ?C
Yesterday's Heating Degree Days: 11

Hmmm... I guess the headline should have been, Al Gore speaks in late May, while students students shiver.

AFTERTHOUGHT: While it's probably obvious from the tone of this post, I should probably emphasize that I consider the environmentalist double standards to be deliciously laughable -- the disconnect between the zero-tolerance-for-mercury scare campaign and the fanatic embrace of mercury laden CFLs being a perfect example.

Anyway, here's the deliciously laughable rule on mercury:

All mercury is dangerous and evil -- except the mercury that is wonderful and mandatory.

posted by Eric on 05.19.08 at 10:48 AM


The Gore Effect works. Pittsburgh weather yesterday 5/18/08:

Normal (KPIT) 72 F / 22 C 50 F / 10 C
Yesterday 64 F / 17 C 44 F / 6 C
Yesterday's Heating Degree Days: 11

dre   ·  May 19, 2008 11:34 AM

Hi, I live in Pittsburgh, and it is f'in cold here. I believe that it is 48 degrees currently, but it feels like 43. Of course it is going up to about 57. That is conclusive proof of global warming right there.

John   ·  May 19, 2008 12:10 PM

Eric: Good for you! I know several people here in Berkeley who won't use CFLs and who tell other people not to use them because of the mercury. I still have a few old silver fillings in my mouth, and so do the people who won't use CFLs.

chocolatier   ·  May 19, 2008 2:10 PM

It is an extreme pet peeve of mine to hear the WWII generation referred to as "The Greatest Generation." People who buy into this are evidently quite ignorant of the 1860's. And to equate pushing environmentalism with the travails of the ACW (which, of course, my colleague Mr. Gore implied wasn't apt in that he apparently thinks the people of the era of the ACW somehow suffered through less and accomplished less) belies a level of ignorance one doesn't expect to see in a Nobel laureate. Then again, Mr. Gore likely believes that global warming is a greater threat to this country than secession was. Being an actual scientist (the majority of whose reading for pleasure over the past 15 years has been on the ACW, and I read a lot), I disagree.

Crimso   ·  May 19, 2008 6:37 PM

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