Sunday 25 Sep 2016

Saving the Environment
Sjef Frenken

"I have a bone to pick with Suzuki," said Jack.

I said "Did you buy a violin? A motorcycle?"

Jack said "No and no. I mean David Suzuki."

I said "Tell me more," knowing full well that Jack needed no encouragement to expound on whatever Suzuki had done to him.

Jack said "You know those new little fluorescent bulbs that he's been touting on TV?"

I said "Jack, you know I don't watch TV anymore, but I think I know the ones you mean. The ones that look like miniature versions of that big brown twisted wormy sculpture that used to stand in Confederation Park downtown. Yes, in fact I bought some a while back."

"Tell me," said Jack, "why did you buy them?"

I said "someone told me that they can save you quite a bit of money over the long run. Mind you they're rather expensive. I once tried to figure out just how that bit of economizing worked: A longer life, at less Hydro cost versus the extra cost of the bulb. I didn't get very far. I couldn't figure it out. My high school and college math were not up to the task. Father Moore would have been very disappointed in me. But why bring up Suzuki?"

Jack said "I just read the piece of paper that came with a set of those bulbs I bought yesterday. I couldn't believe my eyes! Those damn things are a menace!" Jack dug in his pocket.

"How so?" I asked.

"Here, let me read this to you..." Jack consulted his scrap of paper: "'What to do if a CFL -- that acronym stands for Compact Fluorescent Lamps -- what to do if a CFL breaks ... Open the windows and leave the room for at least 15 minutes. For hard floors, don't vacuum or sweep the mess, instead, wear disposable rubber gloves and use cardboard or stiff paper to scoop up the debris. Then clean the area with a damp paper towel. For rugs, use sticky tape to pick up any fragments and powder. Then vacuum the area if necessary."

I said "except for that 'leaving the room for 15 minutes', isn't that exactly what you would do when an ordinary incandescent bulb breaks?"

Jack said "I'm not through yet. Listen to this: 'Place the debris and cleanup materials in a plastic bag and seal it. Put that bag into another plastic bad and seal it.' Now surely that's more than you would do with an ordinary bulb. It sounded a little suspicious. So I dug a little deeper on the Internet."

I said "And..."

"There's mercury in those damn things! When the lamp is not lit, it's in its usual metallic form, same as in a thermometer. It can be absorbed through the skin, but not to any great extent, or only after considerable exposure. However, when the bulb is lit, the mercury vapourizes, and then becomes a very toxic gas that is quickly absorbed by the lungs. And because it's heavier than air, it isn't expelled as quickly from a house. That makes that old Edison invention look like a pretty good alternative, even if it costs more. I'm getting rid of the ones around my house."

I said "How do you get rid of those things?"

"Well," said Jack, "if there is no recycling program in your area, you're just supposed to dump the mess into the garbage -- which means more mercury winding up in the ground water. But the best thing is to recycle. But how many people are going to do that, when it's a hell of a lot easier just to dump them in the garbage?"

I said "I was just thinking of my little granddaughter and my little great-grandson. They are at the crawling stage, pretty soon they'll be standing and pulling things off tables. Could be a lamp, and that could mean a broken CFL. Before mom or dad would be aware of the problem, the child might have breathed in a load of mercury vapour. Minimata time. Odd, but the few CFLs I have in the house are all in table lamps. Thanks for the warning."

"No problem," said Jack. "Sometimes you wonder: to save a little energy we have to put up with a little poison. Much like nuclear energy: to save on carbon dioxide emissions we are asked to support nuclear reactors. But all it takes is one major nuclear accident -- think Chernobyl -- to put the other side of the equation into perspective. That kind of nuclear fall-out has a half-life of 10,000 years, and will be poisoning people for centuries. 'It's safe,' they keep telling us. Like hell. You know there's going to be an accident, sooner or later. We should ask ourselves whether a marginal increase in convenience or decrease in cost outweighs the potential catastrophic damage to people or the environment."

I said "People have been brainwashed by all kinds of industries and advertisers to embrace convenience as a major principle to live by. And it isn't going to change overnight. By the way, CFL is not an acronym but an initialism."

"What the hell is the difference?" asked Jack.

"If you can make it sound like a word, it's an acronym; if you have to spell out the letters, it's an initialism. NATO is an acronym; IBM is an initialism."

"Good," said Jack, "now we're both a little wiser than before we had lunch.

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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