Bender and Burns: Vermont Legislature should phase out toxic 4-foot fluorescent lamps

This commentary is written by Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project and Paul Burns of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

In response to a petition we submitted last Fall, the Agency of Natural Resources issued a determination in February that will end the sale of screw-based mercury-containing compact fluorescent lamps in 2023. While that is a good step in the right direction, the state can, should and is poised to do more.

In mid-March, the House of Representatives adopted legislation, H.500, to ban sales of most 4-foot linear fluorescents starting Jan. 1, 2024, a move that would cover about 90% of fluorescent tubes. 

When fluorescent bulbs break, they pose a mercury exposure threat to anyone in the immediate area — particularly in confined spaces — and especially to pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children. Ending the sale of 4-foot fluorescents would be another important step in Vermont’s 25-year leadership in reducing exposures to mercury. 

In 1998, the state passed one of the first mercury product labeling laws in the country. Since then, Vermont ended sales of most mercury-added products, including thermostats and thermometers. 

Now Vermont has the opportunity to lead again.  Fluorescent lamps have long been recognized as an exposure risk due mercury content but have not been banned because of the lack of viable alternatives.  However, the lighting market has changed and toxic fluorescents are no longer needed.

A new study confirms that LEDs have become widely available and cost-effective alternatives to mercury-added fluorescents. LEDs are twice as energy-efficient as fluorescents and last 2 to 3 times longer.  Switching from fluorescents to LEDs would save a small office $6,000 over the lamp’s life, while a typical school would see $24,000 in savings. It generally takes just two months to recoup the incremental increase in LED purchase price. 

With LEDs being so much more energy-efficient, H.500 would create cost savings for Vermonters. Power plants would have to run less, resulting in an estimated 100,000 metric tons of avoided CO2 emissions by 2040. Collectively, Vermonters would see about $167 million in utility bill savings during that time thanks to about 1,000 gigawatt hours of reduced electricity demand. Finally, when a fluorescent lamp breaks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends a 21-step cleanup process. Let’s stop this needless risk and save energy costs along the way. H.500 is a good place to start.

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