Washington, D.C. — With its traffic circles and tree-lined squares, America’s capital sometimes resembles a magical, otherworldly place. Maybe that’s why so many who govern here think that they can wave their legislative wands and unleash beauty — free of costs and complications.
Of course, reality rarely cooperates.
Consider Washington’s still-unfolding ban on Thomas Alva Edison’s incandescent light bulb. What the Wizard of Menlo Park, N.J., required 10,000 experiments to perfect, Brooks Brothers socialist George W. Bush needed just one signature to pulverize.
If the law is left unchallenged, Jan. 1, 2012, will bring stricter standards that Congress designed in 2007 to electrocute Edison’s invention and dragoon Americans into using more energy-efficient alternatives. Next New Year’s Day, it will become a federal crime to sell traditional 100-watt bulbs. January 1, 2013, will spell curtains for the 75-watt models. One year later, 60-watt and 40-watt incandescent bulbs will be prohibited by federal law.
And Uncle Sam means business. A May 7, 2010, Energy Department document warmly titled “Guidance on the Imposition of Civil Penalties for Violations of EPCA Conservation Standards and Certification Obligations” details the penalties that await anyone who dares to sell Edison bulbs once they become contraband under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act:
The Department will seek the maximum civil penalty against manufacturers and labelers that knowingly distribute products that violate the federal energy and water conservation standards – $200 per unit distributed in commerce. We believe the maximum penalty is appropriate and necessary to provide the greatest possible deterrence. Such violations directly undermine the EPCA regulatory regime, preventing consumers from achieving energy and cost savings intended by the program.
Westinghouse Lighting Corporation is very lucky that the Energy Department did not slap it with this penalty of $200 per verboten bulb. Last December 8, Westinghouse President Raymond Angelo signed an agreement to pay Energy a $50,000 fine for selling 29,000 fluorescent bulbs that violated federal standards. Westinghouse could have suffered a $5.8 million fine. Instead, it settled for 0.86 cents of each dollar of that potential punishment.
But this law is causing grief far beyond corporate headquarters. Courtesy of our federal masters, average Americans are enduring a parade of unforeseen consequences — all because “the experts” want to extinguish one of this nation’s greatest contributions to humanity.
Those swirly bulbs that Washington hopes will replace incandescents are called compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). They brighten slowly, function poorly with dimmer knobs, and emit light that many find unappealing. Even worse, according to EnergyStar.gov, each CFL contains 4 milligrams of toxic mercury. Given the Environmental Protection Agency’s “maximum contaminant level” of 0.002 milligrams per liter, an average CFL contains enough mercury to pollute 528 gallons of water — more than sufficient to fill ten typical 50-gallon residential water heaters.
As the EPA warns, “High exposures to inorganic mercury may result in damage to the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system, and the kidneys.”
Breaking a CFL triggers a significant health hazard that requires a ten-step clean-up. Among other things, the EPA recommends “opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.” No problem . . . unless you occupy an apartment, hotel room, or office with sealed windows. Most modern skyscrapers lack operable windows. The same is true for many Capitol Hill offices.
“The irony should be lost on no one that many members of Congress who crafted this legislation lack the ability to vent the toxic vapors from these eco-friendly lights that they have foisted on us,” says Chicago real-estate developer Justin Berzon.
– “Shut off the central forced air heating/air conditioning system,” EPA advises. Again, what if you break a CFL in an office tower? Shall the entire building freeze or roast while this mini–Superfund site gets sanitized?
– “Continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the H&AC system shut off, as practical, for several hours,” EPA counsels. This might upset residents of Phoenix, where temperatures hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday, just before a crippling dust storm drove Phoenicians indoors. Likewise, opening one’s windows in Minneapolis might be unappealing in January, when highs average 22 degrees.
– “Compact fluorescent light bulbs are dangerous for our family, and dangerous twice over for our son Jonathan, age 11, who is severely autistic,” says Amy Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, with which I am a distinguished fellow. Ridenour adds:
Because of his disability, Jonathan doesn’t understand that he should be careful around light fixtures, so he breaks a bulb every few months. The EPA recommends a ten-step process for cleaning up a broken CFL bulb on carpeting, and two more steps each of the next few times that you vacuum, in order to get the mercury that the first 10 steps missed. But how can you be sure to get it all? If our autistic son broke three CFL bulbs a year in the family room over half a dozen years, even if we followed every recommended step a tedious, cumulative 180-plus times, would our family room ever be safe?
“Also,” Ridenour continues, “the last thing you do with severely autistic people is open windows. In the parlance, they tend to be ‘runners’ — as in, out the door or window and into traffic, or the woods, or the pool. We only would open a window about six inches and no more, so as to permit us to keep the boy.”