Our Mercurial Government


My latest Science Progress column just went up: It's about the strong rebuke (PDF) that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit just gave the Bush administration on the subject of mercury pollution.

The good news is that the administration's sham regulatory policy for this dangerous metal has now been blasted by the courts. The bad news? Ten years after the Clinton administration first tried to save children from mercury--from brain damage--we still don't have a regulatory policy.

That's pathetic, but it's also typical of this administration. As I conclude the column:

In general...the mercury story sounds a lot like the global warming story: We've had an administration that denied the science, rigged the economics, and did nothing. And we had it for two terms. Finally it's coming to an end, but the costs may be incalculable.

You can read the whole column here.


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Bravo. Now, I assume you strongly oppose compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which have been irrationally pushed by your colleagues in the environmental movement. As you know, CFLs contain mercury (which causes brain damage) and threaten to create a disposal nightmare.

By Neuro-conservative (not verified) on 20 Feb 2008 #permalink

You could do the math instead of talking nonsense. Or you could Google it.

"Coal-fired power generation accounts for roughly 40 percent of the mercury emissions in the U.S. The use of CFLs reduces power demand, which helps reduce ..."

"There is a trade-off," Bangert says, "but the benefits are clear. By switching to CFLs we use less energy, resulting in a net reduction in mercury ...

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 20 Feb 2008 #permalink

Hank -- I think you are the one who needs to do the math. There are >100 million households in the United States. Fit them all with CFLs and you are talking about billions of bulbs requiring disposal. Since most people do not have ready access to (or even awareness of) appropriate disposal/recycling facilities, these will enter our daily lives in countless unseen (and unregulated) ways -- not to mention the direct risk to ourselves and our families from breakage in our own homes.

By Neuro-conservative (not verified) on 20 Feb 2008 #permalink

Yes, and this isn't news. It's a tiny amount, it's in solid form, not liquid, and there's less total used in the lamps than the amount that goes up the coal plant smokestack to power equivalent incandescent lamps. Net reduction in total mercury. Controllable. Not up in smoke. Read, this is not news. You can look it up for yourself and do the numbers. You're just late to this particular issue. Catch up.
'Nuf said.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 20 Feb 2008 #permalink

I get it, Hank. "Nothing to see here, move along."

1) Your projections of net reduction are based on overly-optimistic assumptions about the life of CFLs in regular household use, as well as the potential behavioral impacts (ie, people leaving the lights on longer).

2) Solid-form CFL mercury produces both dangerous vapor and hazardous residue, which is especially of concern to people with small children or pets.

3) CFLs in the hands of millions of clueless individuals without handy recycling/disposal options results in a far less controllable distribution of mercury than zoned and regulated power plants.

4) You are living in a fantasy world if you don't think that millions of these things are going to collect up in public garbage bins, dumpsters, sanitation vehicles, and ultimately landfills.

5) I'm not sure how your appeal to the "newsworthiness" of the issue (or lack thereof) actually addresses my substantive points, but I find do find it laugh-out-loud funny that Chris "carbon footprint" Mooney is now worried about the dangers of mercury, when his movement would like to put it into all of our homes!

By Neuro-conservative (not verified) on 20 Feb 2008 #permalink

A little less ideology would help Neuro along here.

When he decries the lack of disposal facilities and the lack of general knowledge about disposal of CFLs, he is correct for now. But there were cars for many years before the first drive-in gas station opened (a bit of Pittsburgh trivia) in my home town in 1919(?).

In other words, when the CFL market grows, so will ease of disposal. In fact, it has already begun at that bastion of liberalism, Wal-Mart.

Now I'm not sure that CFLs will be the best solution here. LED technology may overtake them. But it is important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good here.

On the opposite political flank, I say the same thing about people who adamantly oppose nuclear power rather than leaving open the possibility that it has a role to play in solving an important problem. Focusing on either the problems or the benefits alone is not the way to go.

You got it right, Fred. Neuro should read up on the real problems with CFLs; I'm certainly hoping we see better LEDs -- or electroluminescent panels --- and can skip the CFL push.

There are easier ways to cut back on mercury from coal plants too, capturing the heavy metals out of the smokestacks would yield mercury, lead, cadmium, thorium, uranium. It's a lousy way of mining, but it'd be a very smart way of cleaning up the environment.

I've even seen suggestions that it would be dangerous to capture the heavy metals out of coal smoke because it would collect the uranium and thorium, and that it's 'safer' to let the radioactives get widely distributed downwind. Silly argument though.

Heavy metal pollution from coal smoke is an explicit measure of bioaccumulation, all that carbon is from life, and all that metal accumulated in the living creatures.

Think if you will of the thin dark smear in the strata that will represent humanity's years on Earth, millenia hence. It'll be fascinating, full of interesting stuff.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

there's an old joke about an inept storekeeper, selling all his wares at below cost in order to lure in customers. "but how will you make any profit", inquires a bystander. "quantity!" is the enthusiastic answer.

neuro-conservative crowing about the billions and billions of CFLs being installed reminded me of that one, for some odd reason...

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

Bioaccumulation takes _time_.


Old dolphins, as that link points out, accumulate far more mercury than most fish do.

Old dairy cows will bioaccumulate whatever's available too, remember they're only sent to the slaughterhouse when they're old --- compare them to beef cattle, slaughtered quite young. Anyone checking dairy cows for what accumulates over a lifetime, before they go to cheap hamburger in the school lunch program?

Chris, if you have a link to an online record for the mercury rulemaking, would you post it for reference? If there's not one, there ought to be.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

Um, before we jump to dolphins, can we at least 1) try to understand why Neuro reacted the way he did, and 2) deal with his real issues? If I've read Neuro's posts correctly in the past, I'm betting he's a free market man (sorry for the overly non-PC wording, but work with me here), and expects that the best way for this mercury issue to be dealt with is in a private sector oriented way. What may get under Neuro's skin is the potential for more regulation by government, which I'm guessing he sees as removing both his opportunity to make an informed positive choice and increasing "interference" by government in private free market/capitalist activities. Have I got it right Neuro?

While I lean liberal (!), I do understand the problem - companies that emit mercury as part of the power generation process are, by and large, profit making outfits. Reduce demand by mandating CFLs and you, potentially, reduce profits. Further undermining them is additional regulation requiring scrubbers, mercury recapture, and the eventual (some believe) forced switch to non-burning fuel/energy sources. Profit making companies are not in business to do things that protect public health, or ar "right" - they are in businsess to make their shareholders money. All this adds up to another encroachment into, and potential destruction for industry in the US (Anyone see more manufacturing jobs in the US as a result of NAFTA).

What I think would help Neuro, and others who resist taking actions to protect public health that COULD impact business profits, is a series of incentives to both do the right thing and develop new technologies that can attack the problem. How about a prize, like the X Prize for space privatization, that encourages the biggest and best series of developments of alternate energy technology? It would have to be big to get companies like Duke Power or Entergy to buy in (I'm thinking $100M) and it would have to be tied to long term, demonstrable actions, not just "quick fixes" that could be dismantled when the cameras leave after the check presentation.

And how about awards an publicity for those businesses and civiv groups locally, regionally and nationally who promote and facilitate hazmat recycling taht would help with CFL disposal issues? Finally, how about a recognition that Neuro, and those who believe and think as he does, have valid points that we should address and work to solve, not just toss out because they don't match our own orthodoxy?

Chris & Sheril, you've made Science Debate 2008 a reality, how about this as your next big thing?

By Philip H. (not verified) on 22 Feb 2008 #permalink