RED CLOUD GARRISON, South Korea - Ever since Thomas Alva Edison invented them in 1878, incandescent light bulbs have been the most common source of lighting around the world, but as energy efficiency becomes more important the venerable old incandescent bulbs will be retired.

They will be phased out in the United States beginning in January 2012. In Brazil, they have already been outlawed. Over the span of a few years, almost all incandescent bulbs will be removed from sale in the United States.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 - Public Law 110-140 - mandates many changes in how energy is used. First introduced in the House, then, after amendments and negotiation between the House and Senate, a revised bill passed both houses on Dec. 18, 2007, and President George W. Bush signed it into law the next day.

A key provision about lighting standards requires an efficiency improvement of roughly 25 percent for light bulbs, phased in from 2012 through 2014. Under the law, incandescent bulbs that produce 310 - 2600 lumens of light - roughly, light bulbs of about 40 watts to 150 watts - will be banned from sale.

Bulbs outside this range are exempt from the ban, as are appliance bulbs, "rough service" bulbs, colored lights, industrial plant lamps and three-way bulbs. The U.S. Army in Warrior Country is already in compliance with the law through the use of fluorescent lighting in most locations.

However, there are environmental concerns about these newer bulbs. All fluorescent lamps contain small amounts of mercury as vapor inside the glass tubing. Most bulbs contain 3 to 5 milligrams of mercury. Because mercury is poisonous and a reproductive hazard, even these small amounts are a concern for landfills and waste incinerators where the mercury from lamps may be released and contribute to air and water pollution.

Health and environmental concerns about mercury have prompted many jurisdictions to require spent fluorescent lamps to be properly disposed of or recycled rather than being included in the general waste stream sent to landfills.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that if all 270 million fluorescent lamps sold in 2007 were sent to landfill sites it would represent about .13 metric tons, or .1 percent of all U.S. emissions of mercury, which was about 104 metric tons that year. In addition, fluorescent light bulbs contain phosphors which can also be hazardous.

Special handling instructions for disposal and breakage aren't printed on the packaging of most household bulbs. The USEPA recommends that, in the absence of local guidelines, fluorescent bulbs be double-bagged in plastic before disposal because the amount of mercury released by just one bulb can temporarily exceed U.S. federal guidelines for chronic airborne exposure.

A 2008 study conducted by the state of Maine Department of Environmental Protection noted that it is unclear what the health risks are from short-term exposure to low levels of elemental mercury.

The Maine DEP study confirmed that, despite following USEPA best-practice clean-up guidelines for broken bulbs, researchers were unable to remove mercury from carpet, and agitation of the carpet - such as by young children playing - created spikes as high as 25,000 nanograms per cubic meter in air close to the carpet even weeks after the initial breakage.

Recent developments have led to the manufacture of a machine that reduces the risks from fluorescent light bulbs and the U.S. Army Garrison has the fluorescent lamp crusher that is being operated by a hazardous waste contractor.

The machine is hand fed spent light bulbs which are sucked into the machine where a spinning steel wheel crushes them into tiny fragments and a filter absorbs the mercury. The glass fragments and filters are then collected and removed by hazardous waste companies which then recycle the glass and properly dispose of the filters.

For your part, do not throw away fluorescent light bulbs in the general trash. If they are broken, carefully place them in a double plastic bag - ensuring no tears in the plastic - and take them to the hazardous waste collection point where they can be processed by the contractor.

Page last updated Wed August 18th, 2010 at 20:08