Dear Science,

Are fluorescent lightbulbs really better for the earth? Because they fucking suck.



Dear Unflattered,

Right now, Science looks near death thanks to some lowest-bid buzzing tubes overhead. The flicker of cheap fluorescents is enough to give some people headaches, and in rare cases, seizures. And the colors are all wrong—too much yellow and blue, too little red and green. Newer technologies have cut back on the flickering problem and the color problem. But still.

Getting to your question. Warm and cozy traditional light bulbs work by running a ton of electricity through a thin wire, heating it until the miserable little filament glows under the strain. Most of the energy goes into heating; only about 2 percent of the electricity actually becomes light. In other words, traditional lightbulbs use up lots and lots of energy, which is taxing for the earth.

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?

Well, sort of. Traditional incandescent bulbs have this in the plus column: They're easy to manufacture and they're made out of environtmentally gentle parts. 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, not to return for at least 15 minutes. Whereas if it's a traditional bulb, you grab a broom and screw in a new one.

And even if you manage to not accidentally dump hazardous waste in your living room, what do you do with a fluorescent bulb when it just plain wears out? Most places cannot recycle fluorescent tubes.

If you live in a place where power is produced by coal power plants that are belching mercury, radiation, and carbon—if you live in Ohio, for example—the total amount of mercury used to light up your living room comes out to about the same amount whether you're using a traditional bulb (because the power plant has to release four times the amount of mercury, radiation, and carbon to light it up) or a fluorescent (releasing less at the plant, but more in the landfill or your living room). But here in Seattle, where we make power by shredding salmon, it probably makes more sense to stick with a traditional bulb, and turn it off when you're not home.

Send your questions to