Soylent Greenwashing: The Compact Fluorescent Mandate, Mito-Epidemics and the Brave New Mercury Apologism
You tell everybody. Listen to me, Hatcher. You've gotta tell them! Soylent Green is people! We've gotta stop them somehow!
~ Detective Robert Thorn, Soylent Green, 1973 (From imbd: In an overpopulated futuristic Earth, a New York police detective finds himself marked for murder by government agents when he gets too close to a bizarre state secret involving the origins of a revolutionary and needed new foodstuff.)
Given the fact that the U.S. joined the “Minamata Convention on Mercury,” an international environmental agreement which supposedly addresses “specific human activities that contribute to widespread mercury pollution,”was anyone recently surprised to discover that regular incandescent bulbs are being phased out and were off the shelves by January 1st, 2014, and that mercury-containing compact fluorescent bulbs will mostly be sold in their place? Wasn’t the incandescent ban overturned a few years ago?
Good news first: some incandescent manufacturers are using the “rough service bulb” loophole to keep regular 40, 60, 75 and 100 watt bulbs available to consumers, sometimes at twice the cost, though typically they last longer and are less prone to breakage than the low-pressure mercury bulbs. The bad news is that most people are going to give in and buy CFL and most will not be properly disposed of, potentially dumping more mercury into an environment that is not only dangerously overburdened with mercury itself but with toxicants that compound the effects of mercury.
It’s known that mercury is both acutely and chronically toxic: it can outright kill or gradually poison at remarkably low levels, but little is commonly understood about the mechanisms by which mercury impacts health. Aside from mercury’s effects as a metalloestrogen that can alter the sexual characteristics and behavior of various species, one of mercury’s primary routes of damage is its targeting of mitochondria, leading to an array of seemingly unassociated conditions from cancer to autoimmune disease to cognitive decline and birth defects. This is why Rachel Carson focused on the mito-targeting properties of an increasing number of industrial chemical compounds in her 1962 book, The Silent Spring, which summarized that mitochondrial damage would be the downfall of many species of plants and animals, including humans: “Some of the defects and malformations in tomorrow’s children, grimly anticipated by the Office of Vital Statistics, will almost certainly be caused by these chemicals which permeate our outer and inner worlds.”
You know the expression “cut to the quick”? If mitochondria, as the organelle-engines which produce energy in every living cell in every living organism on earth, represent the “quick,” mercury would be the obsidian knife of the modern toxic arsenal. But part of the problem is that it’s not alone. In Mitochondria as a Target of Environmental Toxicants, Meyers et al. argue that,
The high lipid content of mitochondrial membranes facilitates accumulation of lipophilic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (Backer and Weinstein, 1982) and some alkylating agents (Wunderlich et al., 1972). Cationic metals, such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and manganese, have also been shown to accumulate in mitochondria preferentially (Atchison and Hare, 1994; Bucio et al., 1999; Castellino and Aloj, 1969; Gavin et al., 1992; Sokolova et al., 2005a). These metals may accumulate in mitochondria due to both entry via calcium transporters (i.e., molecular mimicry) and chemical behavior resulting from their interactions with mitochondrial pH and charge.
The authors provide a short list of environmental mitochondrial toxins and drugs which cause mitochondrial damage and are suspected of proliferating an epidemic of mitochondrial-related diseases:
Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors or NRTIs and analogs (Benhammou et al., 2007; Blanche et al., 1999; Chan, 2007; Claessens et al., 2003; Divi et al., 2010; Kohler and Lewis, 2007; McKenzie et al., 1995)
Paraquat (Martinez and Greenamyre, 2012)
Carbon monoxide and cyanide (Ninomiya-Tsuji, 2008)
Folate deficiency coupled with exposure to either cyanide or methanol (Sadun, 1998)
Lipopolysaccharide (Suliman et al., 2003)
PAH quinones (Babu et al., 2005)
Acrolein (Jia et al., 2007)
Acrylamide (Lee et al., 2012)
Methoxychlor (Gupta et al., 2006)
3-nitropropionate (Sabri, 1998)
Pentachlorophenol (Valmas et al., 2008)
Mitochondrial toxins not specified on Meyers et al’s list:
Thimerosal (ethylmercury preservative in vaccines)
Trichlorethylene (fracking and industrial chemical)
Amines-based-pesticides (neonicotinoids and formamidines associated with bee colony collapse)
As for diseases caused by environmental mitochondrial damage, in a study titled Medication-Induced Mitochondrial Damage and Disease, Neustadt et al. document the mechanisms for mitochondrial injury in several conditions with explosively rising prevalence rates such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dementia, Alzheimer's, epilepsy, migraine headaches, strokes, neuropathic pain, Parkinson's disease, ataxia, transient ischemic attack, cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, retinitis pigmentosa, diabetes, hepatitis C, and primary biliary cirrhosis.
In Drug-Induced Dementia: The Perfect Crime and other publications, Dr. Grace Jackson has included Niemann-Picks and autism on the list of environmentally-induced mitochondrial-mediated conditions, most of which were formerly believed to be solely genetic. Dr. Jackson’s summary of a case of chemotherapy- and valproic acid-induced autism in an 8 year old child entitled Chemo Brain echoed almost precisely the known pathway of damage to the human brain and nervous system caused by mercury.
Then in 2008, news of the Hannah Poling concession emerged, whose case had been decided on a theory of vaccine-induced autism via mitochondrial damage. Following the press release of Poling’s compensation, Hannah’s father, neurologist Jon Poling, referred to the role of mercury in acquired mitochondrial injury.
Because of mercury’s acute mitochondrial-toxic properties and its synergistic relationship with other chemical agents, unleashing another direct source of exposure on consumers in the form of mandated CFL bulbs doesn’t represent merely a drop in the bucket unless you’re talking about a “drop” of fire falling into a vast bucket of gasoline. On the other hand, the amount of carbon that would be reduced by the mandate really is just a drop of carbon in a virtual (and literal) sea of industrial CO2 emissions.
Though the general claim is that CFL would prevent the release of up to 15 million tons of CO2 per year, residential and commercial buildings represent just 8% of carbon emissions with a fraction of this produced by lighting. Meanwhile, 75% of carbon emissions are released by just 50 corporations, many of which also happen to lobby against solar, wind and other non-fossil power options which produce vastly less carbon and no mercury emissions.
I’m not a “climate change denier.” In fact I believe the threat of climate change—formerly and misleadingly known as global warming—is imminent, terrifying and not enough is being done to stop it. At the same time, any globally fear-inducing phenomenon like this can easily become subject to disaster capitalism schemes which are rarely helpful and often harmful. One example is the false conception that genetically modified crops will reduce carbon emissions pushed at the UN's climate change negotiations in order to have GM crops and industrial farming methods recognized (and financed) as climate change mitigation methods. Another similar example is the blatant corporate welfare involved in the forced light bulb swap: even in the face of promises that the prices of alternatives-to-incandescents will eventually come down, the traditionally static prices of incandescents are more likely the motive than CO2 reduction for the lamp industry’s mandate-lobbying to force consumers to purchase the more expensive and shorter-wear CFL or the even more expensive (and slightly carcinogenic) LED bulbs. Even if the switch reduced more than a tiny portion of carbon emissions, increasing individual human mercury exposure and increasing its release in the general environment doesn’t sound like a wise or necessary trade-off.
When CFL or the “curly light bulbs” first became popular several years ago and I realized they contained mercury, I ended up in a few stand-offs with “mainstream green” environmental types who, as they proposed that the “negligible risk” presented by mercury in fluorescents is vastly outweighed by the reduction in the carbon footprint, otherwise intelligent people would begin to sound too much like Frito Pendejo from Idiocracy arguing that “Brawndo’s got what plants crave.”
Our “outer and inner worlds” don’t need more mercury and the bulbs just aren’t safe. The EPA has taken to downplaying the risk of breakage when it once insisted on hazmat clean-up procedures. But even if the risks of mercury vapor release from exploding bulbs is minimized, as the London Times first reported in 2009, the rising demand for compact fluorescent lights that came in tow with their mandated use in the EU and UK has led to catastrophic mercury poisoning among workers in Chinese factories which manufacture the bulbs for western corporations.
But it seems like nobody in the west really cares that much about sick and dying Chinese. If forced to contend with the human toll of corporate globalization, maybe some will muse that a little mercury poisoning serves as payback or “karma” for deadly Chinese pet food additives and lead-laced toys unleashed on the American public over the past decade or so— as if impoverished Chinese factory workers originated these schemes and personally profited from them. And as if it won’t be our own children and our own groundwater poisoned by mandated mass use and mass disposal of yet more mercury-tainted products.
According to AirCycle Corporation, a company offering machines that more “safely” dispose of compact fluorescent bulbs, “Each year, an estimated 600 million fluorescent lamps are disposed of in US landfills, amounting to 30,000 pounds of mercury waste. Plus, the EPA reports that 187 incinerators nationwide emit approximately 70,000 total pounds of mercury into the environment annually.” The “incinerators” which the article refers to are coal-fired power plants. Mandated use of CFL will predictably cause an exponential increase in the number of bulbs ending up in landfills to the point that mercury pollution from bulb disposal could easily exceed coal-fired power pollution. Coal-fired power emissions have already been associated with proportionate increases in autism rates in proximate school districts and a long list of other health effects.
So what exactly is the mercury content of individual compact fluorescents? Most mainstream sources report only that the amount of mercury in the bulbs is about “100 times less than in old home thermometers.” Which is, again, exactly what?
Speaking of “drops,” because 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury deposited on a 25-acre lake can make the fish from this source unsafe to eat, and because a minimum lethal dose of elemental mercury vapor in CFL, is 20–60 mg/kg body weight, it’s not really splitting hairs to request the hard numbers and morbid math. According to the graph compiled from manufacturers’ reports, the average mercury content of CFL for retail sale is about 9 mg in a range of 1.4 to 30 mg depending on brand. This says nothing about the average mercury content of bulbs which will actually be sold and used by consumers, an average which could fall either into the lower-mercury or higher-mercury range— with the higher number theoretically sufficient to kill a premature infant. Meanwhile a fever thermometer contains about 500 mg—enough to hypothetically kill, say, 8 to 15 premies or one mid-sized child.
At least Snopes.com reported the actual mercury content of old, banned fever thermometers when making the classic uninformative comparison, though the site didn’t refrain from typical false assurances: “the amount housed in each bulb is very small, about 4 or 5 milligrams, which in volume is about the size of the period at the end of a sentence. (By comparison, old-style mercury thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury, an amount equal to the mercury found in 125 CFL bulbs.) And, provided the bulbs aren't broken open, none of that leaches into the home.”
From the start it’s easy to see the politicization of the common claim that CFL contain "100 times less mercury than a thermometer” because such an estimate would be based on the low end of mercury content of the lowest power CFL juxtaposed to a banned mercury-containing item which presents a less acute hazard (releasing heated mercury vapor vs. spilling liquid mercury, which turns to vapor more slowly). Another common fallacy—also credulously parroted by Snopes.com — is that mercury doesn’t leach from intact bulbs. Well, actually…
In new lamps, mercury vapor is released gradually in amounts that reach 1.3 mg or 30% of the total lamp inventory after four days.
Snopes, like a lot of commercial pop-verification sources, seems to carry out a kind of Orwellian, Ministry of Truthiness “Debunksec” service of grubbing popular credence by discrediting lesser or downright transparent urban legends (e.g., Elvis sightings, vigilante grannies, TV psychics) in order to gain unjustified authority over larger, more complex controversies, often arriving at conclusions that are curiously aligned with state or corporate power (e.g., whether Gardasil induces paralysis and death, or if the squalene adjuvant in some vaccines is safe) . As useful as it is to quick-check the veracity of the latest cyber virus scare or to show your friends that “knock-out game” buzz is largely a scarem hoax, the site’s reporting on key environmental issues, certain government policies and most things pharma is doubleplusungood.
For some background on the politics of mercury and determinations of safe limits, the following was borrowed from my own 2008 Amazon.com review of Dr. Jane Hightower's "Diagnosis: Mercury: Money, Politics and Poison," a book which documents several underreported facts and events surrounding the creation of heavy metal safety standards in the U.S.:
- The most influential studies of two of the most horrendous mass mercury poisonings in history— the Minimata fish poisoning and the Iraqi grain incident—were funded by the fishing industry and EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute. It so happens that EPRI is the world's largest lobbying organization for coal-fired power, itself the greatest source of mercury pollution.
- Canada had its own "Minimata" mercury poisoning epidemic that killed and maimed countless Ojibwa Indians in the 1970's. Dow Chemical Corporation and the fishing industry controlled the outcome of human studies and censored independent researchers’ access to affected individuals.
- Saddam Hussein may have, in a direct way, controlled the data which formed the basis of the FDA's "NOEL" (No Observable Effect Level) standards for "safe" blood levels of mercury in humans in the wake of the Iraqi grain incident. All this while Hussein may have deliberately arranged for the bulk of tainted grain to be sent to areas of the country populated by perceived opponents of the Ba'athist regime.
- Most of the industry-hired researchers from the above tragedies were also the authors of the Seychelles Child Development study which initially reported no evidence of harm from extremely high blood levels of mercury in children and which has influenced FDA standards for allowable levels of mercury for human exposure. The Seychelles Island study was industry's answer to the previous Faroe Island study which, conversely, found considerable evidence of mercury's harm to infants and children from high fish consumption.
- Most of the aforementioned industry-hired researchers hailed from the University of Rochester, which took its funding from EPRI, the fishing industry and other financially concerned entities and which itself produced two of the studies upon which the pharmaceutical companies, the CDC, FDA and Congress forged a judicially influential "majority science" conception of the effects of mercury exposure on infants via vaccines.
Dr. Hightower has continued to sound the alarm on mercury politics and bad safety data , though unfortunately not many are listening. Leading up to the ban of mercury thermometers, there were more frank discussions of mercury risks. But, these days, likely due to the number of industries carrying a "mercury onus" for releasing products or emissions high in mercury coupled with politically inexpedient and persistent associations between environmental mercury, vaccine mercury and the autism and Alzheimer's epidemics, the warnings have become curiously floppy. This is compounded by the fact that the very industries carrying the onus for releasing mercury-containing emissions and products as well as other mitochondrial-toxic products and emissions also frequently fund and control research on mercury’s impact on health and the environment and fund the medical centers which are ground zero for tallying and documenting the human toll.
Is it fair to ask whether we’re barreling towards some sort of toxic species extinction faster, slower or at the same general velocity with which we’re killing the planet with carbon? Do we really have to choose between one or the other? Both are products of deregulation and, either way, mitochondrial injury may represent, as Meyers et al. and other researchers argue, a sort of “canvas” upon which many seemingly disparate modern chronic disease epidemics and gene mutations are painted.
And here’s one of the biggest caveats against allowing mercury-containing anything or mitochondrial-toxic anything to be used in proximity to your family: quite chillingly, both the diagnoses of mercury toxicity and mitochondrial disorder are repeatedly listed in child welfare literature as red flags for medical child abuse. In other words, if your child has the bad luck of incurring chronic mercury poisoning or attendant mitochondrial insufficiency and you approach the wrong clinician for help, you’re screwed. As much of a gas as it is to inhale, inject or swallow the second most toxic metal on earth, I’d recommend skipping the fun for that reason alone.
Obstacles in the Treatment of Medical Child Abuse by Thomas A. Roesler, Brown University.
There are more and more stories in the news of parents losing custody of children due to medical disagreement. It seems like one of the fastest routes to getting profiled with a controversial criminal diagnosis involving alleged medical abuse of dependents is to march into a corporate sponsored medical center declaring that one’s child suffers from mercury toxicity and/or mitochondrial disorder. And due to the bewildering criteria for Munchausen, which includes such things as a parent’s status as a medical professional or use of medically correct terminology, the more documentation provided to support certain diagnoses, the swifter the axe may fall.
[Justina Pelletier’s] parents accused the [Children’s Hospital Boston]and the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families of virtually kidnapping their daughter, and ignoring the medical advice of Dr. Mark Korson, the chief of metabolism at Tufts Medical Center. Korson had given Justina a working diagnosis of mitochondrial disorder over the past year…Since Justina’s regular doctor wasn’t available, a new team of doctors treating Justina at BCH reportedly said that mitochondrial disorder does not exist. They instead diagnosed Justina with somatoform disorder, a mental illness characterized by pain and gastrointestinal symptoms that have no identifiable physical cause.
It’s interesting that the tangled web of Children’s Hospital Boston’s corporate sponsorship list reads like the ultimate mitotoxin lobby: Big Polluter-invested Big Banks and communication conglomerates, pharma, Big Ag ( BCH donor Dunkin’ Donuts is owned by the Monsanto-tied Carlyle Group and many corporations on the donor roster are represented by the lobby giant Ogilvy Government Relations which also represents petroleum giants Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers ).
As a side note, more detailed investigations are needed to look into the increasing practice of politicized state child snatching . Other than the financial motives involved in “child laundering,” the practice could too easily serve as potential means of reducing the statistical appearance of epidemics and forcing consumers to the toxic trough in the age of industrial disease. The type of mitochondrial disorder that Justina Pelletier suffers from may very well be a rare genetic form and not environmental. But since there’s no such thing as a genetic epidemic, the PR disaster is specifically epidemiological and once the “quota” for diagnoses threatens to exceed recorded “genetic” rates, any frantic fatwa to hide fallout probably wouldn’t discriminate too much over cause in individual cases. One way or another, the collateral—whose bodies and lab results may be the biggest whistles of the whistleblower era—are sometimes carted away and silenced like Charlton Heston’s Detective Thorn in Soylent’s final scene.
In any event, Soylent greenwashing is “people” in numerous ways, the industrial injury storm has been raging for more than 50 years and mitochondrial damage may be at the dead center of it. In 1962, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Justice William Douglas erected the President’s Science Advisory Committee mainly to shield Rachel Carson from attacks by toxic industries after her publication of The Silent Spring.
What companies like American Cyanamid, Velsicol, and Monsanto would soon learn was that the Kennedy administration was setting up Big Chemical as the culprit of the planet's worst environmental desecrations...
President Kennedy was dead the next year, Rachel Carson the year after and Robert Kennedy a few years following, effectively removing some of the “onus” from certain industrial culprits—if not by dampening the intensity of the environmental movement then by reducing the specificity of the campaign launched by JFK, Carson and “the most important chronicle of this century for the human race."
But for now we’re just talking about lmercury in light bulbs—only one toxic culprit among many, though one that’s about to be even more ubiquitous. I’ll finish with two vying safety warnings from two different government sources— one stern warning on broken CFL from the National Institute of Health (which moved to reduce mercury within the entire NIH working environment a few years ago) and the other "mild alert" from the EPA. Unfortunately consumers are losing the power to choose which warning to heed as we’re pushed towards heavily greenwashed, politicized options.
“Stern Warning“ from the NIH:
…the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recommends 0.2 μg/m3 level as a safe continual exposure limit for children (4). As an illustration of the effects of CFL breakage, the release of only 1 mg of Hg vapor (∼20% of the Hg inventory in a single CFL) into a 500 m3 room (10 × 10 × 5m) yields 2.0 μg/m3 or ten times the ATSDR-recommended level of 0.2 μg/m3 in the absence of ventilation.
There is limited information on the timing and extent of Hg vapor release from fractured lamps (1,2,5), especially the new CFLs. Jang et al. (1) report only 0.04−0.17% of the Hg as vapor, but this was a study of the phase partitioning within the bulb volume, not a study of the gradual evaporation and release characteristics upon fracture under atmospheric conditions, where we find much larger amounts of Hg vapor (see below). Following any mercury spill, hard surfaces can be cleaned, but in the absence of in situ treatment technologies, porous materials such as carpets or woodwork must be removed and discarded (4). Carpet vacuuming can release Hg vapor when large gas volumes are forced across the Hg-containing dust cake in the vacuum cleaner internal filter. If not removed, spilled Hg liquid will continue to release vapor over time and can spread to other sites through foot traffic. Most consumer information on CFLs claim there is no significant health risk from small numbers of broken lamps, and indeed, since the 1960s, examples of Hg poisoning from all sources have become rare (6). There is one report of Hg poisoning (acrodynia) in a child exposed to broken tube-type fluorescents in a detailed case study presented by Tunnessen et al. (6). Overall, there is significant motivation to improve our management of Hg exposures caused by accidental breakage of fluorescent lamps...
"Mild Alert" from the EPA:
Why is it important to clean up a broken CFL properly?
CFLs and other fluorescent light bulbs contain a small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. When a fluorescent bulb breaks in your home, some of this mercury is released as mercury vapor. To minimize exposure to mercury vapor, EPA recommends that residents follow the cleanup and disposal steps described on this page.
What if I can't follow all the recommended steps? or I cleaned up a CFL but didn't do it properly?
Don't be alarmed; these steps are only precautions that reflect best practices for cleaning up a broken CFL. Keep in mind that CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury -- less than 1/100th of the amount in a mercury thermometer...
Adriana Gamondes is a contributing editor of Age of Autism. She lives with her husband and recovering twins, commuting between Massachusetts and Florida.