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An Exhibition of Conservative Paranoia

Exhibit 43: Dim Bulbs of Bias

WorldNetDaily, and Accuracy in Media all failed to tell the full story of the case they use to attack compact fluorescent light bulbs -- the truth of which would have undercut their attack.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 7/12/2007

They say a good story never dies. But a misleading story has quite a bit of staying power as well, especially when the ConWeb is perpetuating those misleading claims.

An April 16 WorldNetDaily article by Joseph Farah on the alleged toxicity of "energy-saving and money-saving compact fluorescent lamps" that "everyone is being urged, cajoled and guilt-tripped into purchasing" featured the case of the Brandy Bridges family, who purportedly faced a $2,000 bill to clean up mercury contamination in their home after a fluorescent bulb broke. Since the family could not afford it and insurance would not cover it, the family "has been forced to seal off her daughter's bedroom [where the bulb broke] with plastic to avoid any dust blowing around. Not even the family pets are permitted in to the bedroom. Her daughter is forced to sleep downstairs in an overcrowded household."

In fact, Farah's article is a big load of scaremongering hooey.

Farah apparently lifted his story about the Bridges family from a an April 12 article in a Maine newspaper, the Ellsworth American. But Farah didn't copy-and-paste the part stating that a four-figure cleanup following a broken fluorescent bulb is unnecessary overkill:

Officials have said that Bridges has little to worry about and she could easily clean up the bulbs by hand.

State Toxicologist Andrew Smith said it would be unlikely that a person could contract mercury poisoning from the levels of mercury found in Bridges’ daughter’s room.

“In this situation, my understanding, was this 1,900 was the sign reading right at the spot of the floor where the bulb broke,” said Smith. “While 1,900 was certainly considered an elevated reading of mercury vapor, it was a very localized level that I would not expect to result in any sign of mercury exposure.”

Smith said mercury is only dangerous with long-term exposure and in this case the person would have to stay right at the spot of the 1,900 reading or there would have to be elevated levels of mercury vapor in the breathing zone — about 3 feet — above the spill. Mercury also dissipates over time.

The air in the bedroom at the 3-foot level measured between 31 to 49 ng/m3 of mercury, depending on the location.

Smith said a CFL light bulb breaking is not in the same category as when a mercury thermometer breaks.


Scott Cowger, director of outreach and communications for the DEP, said the DEP’s Web site ( has guidelines for cleaning up a broken fluorescent bulb.

Cowger said it is important to ventilate the area by opening windows and not to vacuum the area of the broken bulb, which may spread the mercury. While wearing appropriate safety gloves, glasses, coveralls or old clothing and a dust mask, a person can remove the glass pieces and put them in a closed container.

The dust can be cleaned up using either two pieces of stiff paper, a disposal broom and dustpan or a commercial mercury spill kit. Afterward, the area should be patted with the sticky side of tape, according to the DEP Web site.

Cowger said all the items used in cleaning up the spill should be treated as “universal waste” or a household hazardous waste that can be disposed of without hiring professionals.


The DEP spokesman said, though, it “isn’t necessary to hire professionals at all” for a light bulb. The specialist who responded to Bridges’ broken bulb was trained to respond to chemical spills and to clean up such spills to “appropriate standards.”

So the bedroom doesn't need to be sealed off! They can air out the room and sweep up the glass! There's absolutely no reason to spend $2,000!

Further, blogger PZ Myers noted another relevant issue: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of mercury in a compact fluorescent bulb, plus the amount of mercury emissions from the electricity needed to power that bulb (as generated by a coal-fired power plant) is still less than the mercury emissions generated for the electricity needed to operate an incandescent bulb.

Farah didn't mention any of this. No surprise -- for being the head of a "news" organization, Farah's own reporting record is abysmal.

Still, Farah followed up with a May 11 column noting that his original article was being used as an "example" of a fallacious charge on the Snopes urban-legend-debunking site. Farah retorted:

The story was so good, if I do say so myself, it was picked up internationally.

Everything in the story is 100 percent accurate and truthful – and not a word of the original story has been altered.


Snopes reports my story is an "example" of this ludicrous assertion: "An environmental clean-up crew needs to be called in to deal with the mercury dispersed by one broken CFL bulb."

Now, I dare you. Go read my story and tell me where I, the reporter in this case, suggested any such nonsense.

Of course, when you refuse to tell the full truth about the situation -- reporting only on the $2,000 cleanup proposal instead of opening windows -- people will, in fact, think that an environmental clean-up crew is needed. And Farah did indeed "alter" the original Ellsworth American article by not completely reporting all the relevant claims it made -- specifically, suggesting the "nonsense" that a $2,000 cleanup job was not the only option Bridges had.

Farah concluded: "Long story short: Learn to trust those with track records of honesty, integrity and standards. WND has those traits." Excuse us while we suppress snickers at the idea that WND has a record of "honesty, integrity and standards" -- ConWebWatch has repeatedly documented that it doesn't.

Farah was the most shameless misleader on the subject, but he wasn't alone in peddling an incomplete -- and thus false -- story about the Bridges family.

A May 10 article by Fred Lucas took a page out of Farah's notebook,making misleadingly alarmist claims about CFLs. Lucas stated that "Bridges dropped a fluorescent bulb in her daughter's room and it shattered, leaving potentially unsafe levels of mercury inside the rug. At the suggestions of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, she now has to pay $2,000 for a professional environmental clean up. Her seven-year-old daughter sleeps in the family room, as her room is sealed off by plastic."

But like Farah, Lucas descended into scaremongering and ignored information showing that the Bridges case was overblown. And like Farah, Lucas failed to mention that, according to the Ellsworth American, another spokesman for Maine's Department of Environmental Protection points out that it "isn’t necessary to hire professionals at all" for a broken CFL bulb, and that the specialist who responded to Bridges’ broken bulb query was trained to respond to chemical spills.

Lucas wrote that "In Bridges' case, the shattered glass couldn't be easily removed from the carpet and reached a level of 1,939 ng/m3 (monograms per cubic meter) in the single area. For her daughter's entire room, the levels in the air were well below 300, considered the threshold for safety." But, like Farah, Lucas ignored the rest of the story. as reported by the Ellsworth American: that a person would have to be standing next to where the broken bulb was, not bothering to lift a finger to clean it up, for a very long time before there was a risk of mercury poisoning from that broken bulb.

Two months later, this misleading meme and incompletely told story about the Bridges family was still kicking around the ConWeb. A July 5 Accuracy in Media "special report" by Cliff Kincaid and Andy Selepak puts a protectionist twist on scary claims about compact fluorescent light bulbs, claiming that CFL proponents "fail to mention that the bulbs are made in communist China and are potentially hazardous to human health," further attacking General Electric for manufacturing CFLs "in Red China at the expense of American jobs and workers." Suddenly AIM is concerned about American jobs moving overseas?

Kincaid and Selepak went on to claim: "The Washington Times reported on May 3, 2007, that it cost one Maine family $2,004.28 to clean up the toxic mess from just one broken CFL, and that it would 'take 16,667 cubic meters of soil to 'safely' contain all the mercury in a single CFL.' " In fact, the only CFL-related item the Times ran that day was not a news article but, rather, a column (reproduced at the Fox News website) by conservative activist Steven Milloy that was an attack on CFLs, not the balanced "news" article Kincaid and Selepak suggest it is. Milloy has a habit of spouting debunked claims in order to attack global warming and nuclear radiation concerns.

In repeating the anecdote about the Maine family purportedly facing spending "$2,004.28 to clean up the toxic mess from just one broken CFL," Milloy -- and, thus, Kincaid and Selepak -- fails to tell the whole story.

Another thing this whole bunch failed to mention: that they may have been played by Brandy Bridges. The Ellsworth American reported that Bridges "spent roughly two to three hours a day over the past several weeks, talking on the phone and in person and contacting local papers to get the word out on what she believes are dangerous light bulbs." Did WND, CNS or AIM print their articles based on a personal entreaty from Bridges -- with the caveat that they make her look like a victim and hide the full story? Only they can answer.

Either Farah, Lucas, Milloy, Kincaid and Selepak are dimbulbs for not doing basic research to tell the full story about CFLs and the Bridges family, uncritically regurgitating Brandy Bridges' claims -- or, in knowingly peddling such misleading, incomplete tripe, they assume that we are the dimbulbs.

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