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A meme is born

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I awoke this morning with a notion of ridiculing the marginal voices on the intertubes who’d begun winding themselves into knots over a new German “study” claiming that compact fluorescent lights will transform our skulls into husks of cauliflower-sized tumors. Now, however, I see that Reynolds and Althouse are promoting the story, which means it’s reached Full Wingnut Velocity more quickly than I’d expected.

For those keeping score at home, the damning new evidence against CFLs consists of a report by a small German industrial laboratory that appears to spend most of its time doing air quality consulting for businesses and building contractors. The lab — whose website can be read in butchered Yahoo translation here — has no academic affiliation, has never hosted research that’s appeared in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and doesn’t appear to employ anyone with an advanced degree in chemistry (much less medicine in general or oncology in particular). But their report evidently claims that “several carcinogenic chemicals and toxins were released when the environmentally-friendly compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) were switched on, including phenol, naphthalene and styrene.”

Sounds terribly frightening, except that (a) it’s not entirely clear that any of these chemicals are actually carcinogenic in humans, and (b) all three — though toxic in truly massive doses — are abundant at low levels in virtually any indoor setting. Phenol, for example, makes up about 12 percent of the putty that’s used to fuse the metal base of a bulb socket to the glass bulb itself; so far as I’m aware, there’s nothing special about compact fluorescent bulbs that would surpass the minuscule (and completely innocuous) levels of gaseous phenol that might be emitted by a warming socket. Similarly, naphthalene (usually in the form of phthalic anhydride) and styrene are found in an almost endless variety of the ordinary crap that clutters Glenn Reynolds’ house. And tonight’s box of merlot will do more damage to Ann Althouse’s liver than the lifetime’s worth of bulbs that George W. Bush will have made her purchase.

CFLs, to put it bluntly, would have to produce an implausibly massive fog of these chemicals to pose even the most remote chance of acute toxicity, much less a distant risk of cancer. But since I assume Al Gore is still fat, there’s probably nothing to be gained from pointing this out.

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