Science Dear Science
posted by August 2 at 16:20 PMon
This week in Dear Science, The Stranger’s science column, Science answers the age-old question:
Are fluorescent lightbulbs really better for the earth? Because they fucking suck.
Science agrees (“Right now, Science looks near death thanks to some lowest-bid buzzing tubes overhead”) and explains how traditional light bulbs work (lots of energy used in creating relatively little light) and goes on to say:
Fluorescent bulbs cheat, heating up a coil of wire only enough to start throwing off electrons, which in turn convert a low-pressure mercury vapor into plasma. The heavy-metal vapor throws off a bunch of ultraviolet light—excellent for tanning or destroying DNA, but not so great for looking. The white powder on the inside of the bulb converts the emitted ultraviolet light into visible light by fluorescence—hence the name. This convoluted pathway uses about a quarter of energy to make the same intensity light as a traditional bulb and also lasts longer than a regular bulb. Great! Fluorescents are a clear environmental winner, right?
Not so fast.
The “mercury vapor” that fluorescent bulbs require is quite toxic. While new compact fluorescent bulbs are voluntarily limited to five milligrams of mercury each, as little as a tenth of a milligram per square yard will make you seriously ill. Shaking hands, drooling, irritability, memory loss, depression, weakness—sounds like fun. And that’s what happens to adults; kids can be permanently injured by mercury exposure. If you break one of these bulbs in your house—and think of all the times a bulb breaks—the current advice is to open a window and run…
The verdict? It might surprise you. It has something to do with where in the country you live.
By the way, Science is happy to answer your burning questions—whether glass is really a liquid, why pears taste so good, why some men dribble and others shoot, whatever. Send queries here.