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Lightbulb moment

The quality of light in our houses has changed. With the ban on incandescent lightbulbs, the warm light most of us grew up with disappeared from our lives, replaced by the colder but, we were told, more energy efficient fluorescent light. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), more expensive and more difficult to discard but better for the environment in the end, were the future and we had no choice but to live by their light.

As we try to reduce our carbon footprint and our use of landfill to dispose of our garbage, any campaign that tells us something will use less energy and need replacing less frequently is bound to attract support. And, when the supporting ads are fronted by the cuddly, grinning Dr David Suzuki, Canada's most popular environmentalist, people are going to listen.

But, were we told the truth? In the years since we were forced to embrace the curly bulbs, some disturbing information has emerged which has made many environmental campaigners suspicious of the push for CFLs in our homes. The light they emit is bad for our mental health, apparently. Because they don't give off light from the full spectrum, people who are forced to work by fluorescent light can suffer from depression, especially during the winter in the Northern Hemisphere when light is in short supply. It's recommended now that if you have them in your house, you confine them to hallways and other spaces where their light isn't required for daily life. Also, they don't give off much heat and in our climate in winter, incandescent light bulbs contribute a significant amount of heat in our houses. Fluorescent bulbs contain 5 mg of mercury, a toxic substance which requires very, very careful disposal. This is why you can't just throw them in the garbage or put them in the regular recycling box. Mercury can seep into the water table, and into your body through your skin if you touch it or through your lungs if you breathe it in. If a CFL breaks, you're not supposed to just sweep up the pieces and discard them. These bulbs pose a much greater hazard than just cutting your finger.

Toronto has developed a system to dispose of toxic waste, including fluorescent light bulbs. Each ward has a toxic disposal day, usually held in a public park and presided over by the local councillor, where residents can bring fluorescent light, paint cans, aerosols, batteries, and any other unsavoury waste and make it disappear. These days are a great idea, of course, but not everyone has the means to transport their toxic waste to the disposal day. For them, Toronto has the "Toxic Taxi," a collection service for materials that can't be recycled and can't go into landfill. There are some rules about collection, but they aren't that difficult to follow. And if you can't wait, Home Depot and Lowe's will dispose of small amounts of domestic toxic waste.

For the last eight years, I've been a building operator. I now have a portfolio of four buildings, and I'm responsible for all the HVAC (heat, ventilation, and air-conditioning), light, water, and hydro that comes into and goes out of the building. These are just four of the hundreds of buildings in our city, and I have accumulated boxes of spent fluorescent bulbs waiting for the Toxic Taxi. I always insist that residents in my building take extreme care when they break a bulb. Because much of the danger is in the form of gas, I suggest they leave the room for a few minutes to allow it to disperse, although the danger comes from more than just breathing it in.

I want an alternative, but with Canada's population of scientists diminishing by the week, I'm not confident we'll find one any time soon.

Your lights are on, but is there anyone home?

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