Lex MM article for GWAC column 2/26/09 issue

Let’s Put Risk Into Perspective

For most of us, each day of our lives involves acts such as flipping on and off light switches, turning on the coffee maker, the television, the radio, the microwave, and other familiar appliances, thereby causing a power plant somewhere on the power grid to carry on with the business of providing energy and emitting toxic pollutants into the atmosphere—CO2 and mercury being but two of the most noxious. Most of us routinely slide into our auto, which generates yet more pollutants into the air that we all breathe. We do these things each day…and the next day and the next and the next.

Do any of us stop to think of the risk involved in each of the above activities? The risks to our health from the air we breathe? Or the dangers inherent in driving a car, not to mention talking on a cell phone or text messaging while driving? Or, as we now know from overwhelming scientific consensus, the risks to the planet and ultimately our survival as a species from the dangers posed by global warming?

David Schock’s recent column questioning the use of compact florescent lights (CFLs), cell phones, wifi networks, and other ubiquitous devices found in our daily lives raises this question of risk and ends with the expression of a heartfelt desire for more testing of products before they become available in the marketplace.

The unfortunate reality is that we live in an imperfect world. Just about everything we do has some risk. Take the automobile. We routinely breathe in air polluted by auto emissions, asthmatics being the foremost sufferers, so you might suppose that we would want to stop using our autos immediately and wait for the world’s first pollution-free vehicle to arrive. How do we square our concern for the air we breathe, let alone the looming dangers posed by global warming, with our staggering dependency on automobiles?

The answer is that if we care about these things, we cope with our need to get from one place to another by evaluating the choices available, ranging from using public transportation to shopping for a less-polluting vehicle to walking or biking. Choosing to use CFLs to light our homes is no different, and is one of the lowest cost and more effective measures we can take to personally engage in the challenge posed by climate change.

Are CFL’s the perfect solution? No. Do they contain mercury? Yes, but by every study done, their overall contribution of mercury to the environment, including power generation and disposal in landfills if not properly recycled, is significantly less than if society continues to use incandescent lights. Is there a hazard if a CFL is dropped and broken? Yes, but it is miniscule, and proper cleanup procedures make this improbable hazard manageable. Do they emit radio frequency (RF) radiation? Yes, but so do all fluorescent lamps which have been in use in our schools, offices, supermarkets, shops and in our homes for a very long time. (And what about emissions, RF and otherwise from TVs, microwaves, and computers, not to mention cell phones and wifi systems cited in Schock’s column? Oy!)

Is there a better lighting solution available that does not include mercury and does not emit RF radiation? Yes, light-emitting diode (LED) lights have a promising future and are even more energy efficient than CFL’s, but they are still many times the cost of CFL’s and, with regard to home use, are still in their infancy in terms of product development.

To paraphrase an oft-quoted statement, you fight the war at hand with the weapons at hand. The overwhelming consensus within the world’s scientific community is that we are at the point where we need to start treating the threat from global warming as the equivalent of a war that demands a commensurate commitment of resources. We can wait for the level of product testing desired by Mr. Schock, or we can use one of the most effective tools presently available to the average homeowner in this struggle. The choice is up to each of us as to how we choose to weigh the risks we encounter every day of our lives.