From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: What are the greenest light bulbs to use? I hear there has been a lot of backlash against compact fluorescents
because they contain mercury.
-- Peter Roscoe, Hershey, PA
Just a decade ago, incandescent bulbs were just about the only game in town, despite their inefficient use of electricity
to generate light and their primitive technology that had not changed since being invented some 125 years ago. But now that
is all changing fast, with phase-outs of incandescents going on in Australia, Brazil, Venezuela, Switzerland and the European
Union, with Argentina, Russia, Canada and the U.S. following suit shortly. The U.S. passed legislation in 2007 to increase
the efficiency of light bulbs sold in the U.S. by 25 percent or more by 2014, and then by as much as 60 percent more by 2020.
For decades, those concerned with energy savings have been touting the benefits of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) over incandescents.
CFLs use only one-fifth of the electricity of incandescents to generate the same amount of light, and they can last six to
10 times longer. But CFLs’ cooler color and inability to be dimmed have made them less desirable. Another hindrance
to the widespread adoption of CFLs has been their higher cost (though most consumers would save plenty in energy costs over
the life of a bulb). Also, CFLs contain mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin that is released when the bulbs break. And once CFLs
do burn out they must be disposed of properly to avoid releasing mercury into the environment.
Given the issues with CFLs, LEDs (short for light emitting diodes) are beginning to come on strong. These highly efficient
bulbs don’t generate heat like incandescents (which helps to keep air conditioning costs down as well) and can last
five times longer than CFLs and 40 times longer than incandescents. Tiny LED bulbs have been around for years in specialized
applications (such as stadium scoreboards), but lighting engineers got the idea to cluster them and use reflective casings
to harness and concentrate their light for residential use. In recognition of the LED’s potential, the U.S. Department
of Energy (DOE) set up a special “solid-state” (LED) lighting R&D program to hasten the advance of the technology.
In comparing the total cost to run three different types of 60-watt equivalent bulbs for 50,000 hours (factoring in the cost
of the both bulbs and electricity), the EarthEasy website found that LEDs would cost $95.95, CFLs $159.75 and incandescents
$652.50. The 42 incandescent bulbs tested used up to 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity compared to 700 and 300 for CFLs
and LEDs respectively. However, despite the savings most consumers are loath to spend $35 and up for an LED bulb (even though
it will save more than $500 in the long run) when a traditional incandescent bulb right next to it on the shelf costs $1.
There are other newer technologies in the works. Seattle-based Vu1 now sells highly efficient bulbs based on its Electron
Stimulated Luminescence (ESL) technology, whereby accelerated electrons stimulate a phosphor coating on the inside of the
bulb, making the surface glow. One of Vu1’s 65-watt equivalent bulbs retails for under $20 and uses a similar amount
of energy as an equivalent CFL. And incandescents aren’t out of the efficient lighting race altogether just yet. Top
bulb makers recently released new versions that use as much as a third less electricity to operate (complying with 2012’s
new federal standards) and are promising newer models still that will run on even less energy.
CONTACTS: DOE Solid-State Lighting Program, www1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/ssl/; EarthEasy, www.eartheasy.com; Vu1 Corporation,
|Lester Brown Suggests Plan B
'Plan B' is a book and a movement
Dear EarthTalk: Some friends of mine were talking about a book called "Plan B" that proposes a plan for rescuing
the environment and ending poverty around the world. Is it a realistic plan or just some utopian pipe dream?
- Robin Jackson, Richmond, Va.
What started as a book has grown into a movement known as "Plan B" which presents a roadmap for achieving worldwide
goals of stabilizing both population and climate. According to Lester Brown, author of the 2003 book, Plan B (and three subsequent
updates) and founder of the non-profit environmental think tank, Earth Policy Institute, the plan is based on replacing the
fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy with a new economic model powered by abundant sources of renewable
Brown argues for transportation systems that are diverse and aim to maximize mobility, widely employing light rail, buses
and bicycles. "A Plan B economy comprehensively reuses and recycles materials," he says. "Consumer products
from cars to computers are designed to be disassembled into their component parts and completely recycled."
Brown even proposes a budget for eradicating poverty, educating the world's youth and delivering better health care for
everyone. "It also presents ways to restore our natural world by planting trees, conserving topsoil, stabilizing water
tables, and protecting biological diversity," Brown says. "With each new wind farm, rooftop solar water heater,
paper recycling facility, bicycle path, marine park, rural school, public health facility and reforestation program, we move
closer to a Plan B economy."
Plan B is an integrated program with four interdependent goals: cutting net carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020,
stabilizing population at eight billion or lower, eradicating poverty, and restoring the Earth's natural systems. Where Plan
B really hits home is in the numbers: Brown puts realistic dollar values on the various aspects of his plan, and compares
these costs with current military spending. Needless to say, restoring the environment and economy looks like a bargain when
viewed against what the developed nations of the world spend on being ready for battle.
The beauty of Plan B is that it is feasible with current technologies and could well be achieved by 2020 with a concerted
international effort. Brown reportedly wrote the latest incarnation of Plan B as a warning call for leaders of the world to
begin "mobilizing to save civilization" given that time is more than ever of the essence. Luminaries from Bill Clinton
to E.O. Wilson to Ted Turner have spoken highly of Plan B, and at least one university (Cal State at Chico) has made the latest
version of the book (Plan B 4.0) required reading for all incoming freshmen.
Those looking for more up-to-date information on the evolution of the Plan B model and progress toward its goals should
tune into the website of the Earth Policy Institute, the think tank started by Brown in 2001 and currently used as a central
node in the growing network of thousands of entities and individuals around the globe supportive of making Plan B into reality.
Prior to founding Earth Policy Institute, Brown was well known in environmental and policy circles for his work with the Worldwatch
Institute, a pioneering environmental think tank he launched back in 1974.
CONTACT: Earth Policy Institute, www.earth-policy.org.
Dear EarthTalk: I’m interested in getting a new tattoo, but recently found out that red tattoo ink contains mercury.
Is this true of other tattoo inks as well? Are there any eco-friendly alternatives?
-- John P., Racine, WA
It is true that some red inks used for permanent tattoos contain mercury, while other reds may contain different heavy metals
like cadmium or iron oxide. These metals—which give the tattoo its “permanence” in skin—have been
known to cause allergic reactions, eczema and scarring and can also cause sensitivity to mercury from other sources like dental
fillings or consuming some fish. While red causes the most problems, most other colors of standard tattoo ink are also derived
from heavy metals (including lead, antimony, beryllium, chromium, cobalt nickel and arsenic) and can cause skin reactions
in some people.
Helen Suh MacIntosh, a professor in environmental health at Harvard University and a columnist for the website,
Treehugger, reports that as a result of a 2007 lawsuit brought by the American Environmental Safety Institute (AESI), two
of the leading tattoo ink manufacturers must now place warning labels on their product containers, catalogs and websites explaining
that “inks contain many heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and others” and that the ingredients have been linked
to cancer and birth defects.
Of course, exposure to mercury and other heavy metals is hardly the only risk involved with getting a tattoo.
The term tattoo itself means to puncture the skin. Tattoo ink is placed via needles into the dermis layer of the skin, where
it remains permanently (although some colors will fade over time). Some people have reported sensitivity springing up even
years after they first got their tattoo; also, medical MRIs can cause tattoos to burn or sting as the heavy metals in the
ink are affected by the test’s magnetism.
Beyond the long term risks of walking around with heavy metals injected into your body’s largest organ (the skin), getting
a tattoo in and of itself can be risky business. If the tattoo parlor’s needles and equipment aren’t properly
sterilized in an autoclave between customers, you could be exposing yourself to hepatitis B or C, tuberculosis, mycobacterium,
syphilis, malaria, HIV or even leprosy.
“The potential risk of infectious spread from tattooing (particularly due to Hepatitis B) is high enough
that it is a practice that should be avoided by pregnant women to safeguard the health of the baby [and that of the pregnant
woman herself] whose immune system is down regulated and is much more vulnerable to these types of infection,” reports
dermatologist Audrey Kunin, who runs the popular Dermadoctor website. Dr. Kunin advises to be careful about choosing a tattoo
parlor: “Make sure the place is reputable, perhaps check with the health department to see if there have been past claims
against the parlor in question if you still have doubts.” She adds that since tattoos are essentially open wounds, they
must be cared for properly, especially in the first few weeks, to stave off infection.
Those who want go ahead with getting a tattoo anyway despite the risks should consider steering clear of colors
derived from heavy metals. Dr. Kunin reports that black might be the safest permanent tattoo ink; it is often derived from
a substance called carbon black and rarely causes any kind of sensitivity issues. If your heart is set on red in your tattoo,
ask around to see if any tattoo parlors in your area are willing to work with non-metallic organic pigments that lend a red
color such as carmine, scarlet lake, sandalwood or brazilwood. There are non-metallic alternatives available for many other
popular tattoo ink shades, too.
CONTACT: Dermadoctor, www.dermadoctor.com.