TURNING OFF THE DANGERS OF CFLs
The modern world is a marvel. Walk into a room, turn a handle and water gushes forth, cold or hot. Turn a dial and the temperature rises or falls. Flip a switch and darkness is turned to light. All of this is only possible because of electricity. For lighting, electricity led to the marvel that is the incandescent light bulb.
But the bulb’s days are numbered, or so says the government; for our own good and that of the planet no less. The phase-out of the higher wattage incandescents (100- and 75-watt bulbs) has already taken effect, destroying many American businesses in the process.6 Now, homes and businesses are flooded with a new bulb, a foreign bulb produced in China, foreign both in terms of its provenance of production and the light it produces.
LET THERE BE DARK: TURNING OFF THE DANGERS OF CFLS
With the demise of the incandescent light bulb, the new dominant source of light is the CFL (compact fluorescent lamp). Hailed as a way to save the planet and serious pocket change at the same time, the bulbs were known to have significant issues even before rollout.
First, CFLs were and still are far more expensive than incandescent bulbs, currently costing four times more per bulb. For specialty bulbs, like those that work with dimmer switches, the cost differential is far greater still. Breakage and disposal presented an issue as well and continue to do so, because the bulbs contain mercury vapor. If someone breaks a CFL, while a HAZMAT team may be an overboard reaction, cleanup is not as simple as sweep and dispose. It is more like run, ventilate, tape and seal broken contents.10
Disposal is also problematic. While recycling programs are in place for CFL disposal, it is estimated that barely two percent of CFLs are actually recycled, which means that millions of these bulbs end up in landfills where they leach mercury and other chemicals into soil and ground water.
The mercury released by a broken bulb (and who hasn’t broken a light bulb, especially if they have kids…) is a cause for real concern, especially for parents of small children and for those in modern, well-sealed homes and buildings with little air exchange. Breaking one of these in a small closet is a real catastrophe! “In the hour immediately after each breakage, the team recorded mercury gas concentrations near the bulb shards between 200–800 μg/m3. For comparison, the average eight-hour occupational exposure limit allowed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is 100 μg/m3.”1
Thankfully, it does appear the amount of mercury in some CFLs is declining. Even so, more problems with CFLs continue to be discovered and more lies told to consumers to justify the laws foisting them upon us continue to be revealed.
NOT SUCH A BRIGHT IDEA AFTER ALL
The claims surrounding CFL performance in comparison to incandescent bulbs are startling. According to Wikipedia, “Compared to general-service incandescent lamps giving the same amount of visible light, CFLs use one-fifth to one-third the electric power, and last eight to fifteen times longer.” Unfortunately, researchers and reporters have shown that these claims are at times wildly false and inflated.
Let’s examine the two key parts of the above statement, light output and bulb longevity. First, do CFLs produce the same amount of visible light as traditional bulbs? The answer is no. One study found that an 11-watt CFL produced only 58 percent of the light of an equivalent 60W incandescent, even after ten minutes of warm up.9 The European Commission, responsible for the EU’s version of the light bulb ban, has conceded as much. Thus, a person would need two CFLs for each incandescent, diminishing their supposed environmental and economic savings.
Second, do they last eight to fifteen times longer than incandescent bulbs? Definitely not. Here as well, the bulbs’ real life performance falls far short of manufacturer and government claims. Our family’s personal experience supports this―we had to change two just last week, and neither was more than two years old―as do numerous studies. Part of the problem—and the irony here is as thick as the butter on my morning bread—is that the very act of turning a CFL on and off can greatly reduce its lifespan.
A major study regarding the lifespan and light output of CFLs concluded, “Applications in which lighting is used only briefly (such as closets, bathrooms, motion detectors and so forth) will cause CFL bulbs to burn out as quickly as regular incandescent bulbs . . . When initially switched on, CFLs may provide as little as 50 percent to 80 percent of their rated light output and can take up to three minutes to reach full brightness.”5
Also notice that the above study and others point to the fact that CFLs take many minutes to reach full light potential, a significant problem for many home lighting applications, where people are briefly in a bathroom, closet, or some other space and need light for far less than ten minutes. Before a CFL has reached optimal brightness or efficiency, it will already have been turned off.
Thus, we have been forced to adopt a light bulb that must remain either on or off at all times if we don’t want it to burn out as rapidly as the fifty-cent bulbs it replaces, that takes a number of minutes or more to achieve optimal brightness and efficiency, that works efficiently for less than half of its rated lifespan (which is a fraction of what many manufacturers claim), and that requires extreme care to dispose of at the end of its life or after accidental breakage, and most often just ends up in a landfill, serving as yet another toxic source of pollution.
Oh, and you also need two of them to get the same light output as a single incandescent, but each now costs about four times more than one of those. This is progress and will save the earth? Really, this stuff is too ironic to make up.
WHEN DARKNESS IS BETTER THAN LIGHT
Yet, we have reason for even greater concern. Many people report that they dislike or react negatively to the quality and type of light CFLs produce. Headaches, eye strain, and a host of other issues have been associated with CFLs.
Even more alarming, a recent study showed that the protective CFL coating was prone to wear and cracking.2 When this coating was compromised, the bulbs emitted a very harmful form of light, damaging to both eyes and skin. Even worse, every bulb tested in the study showed cracks in the coating. “Cells exposed to CFLs exhibited a decrease in the proliferation rate, a significant increase in the production of reactive oxygen species, and a decrease in their ability to contract collagen.”3 Ironically, the now banned incandescent bulbs had no such issues.
Thus, CFLs are not just a bad choice for indoor lighting or for environmental stewardship but should be avoided and replaced as soon as possible because of danger to health. So much for all the promised savings for people and planet. If only we could get our money back. Don’t turn out the lights just yet.
Fortunately, we can still find the old style incandescent, and many people have been stocking up on them while they have opportunity. Amazon sells a case of twenty four 100-watt bulbs for around fifteen dollars. Many stores are also clearancing their incandescent bulbs. A few months ago, I walked into Lowes where I saw a whole rack with over a thousand four-bulb boxes marked down to a dollar a box. Time is now limited, so stock up if the incandescent is still your bulb of choice.
Especially for people in cold climates, incandescent bulbs are very environmentally and energy friendly, as they produce large amounts of heat and do so usually in the very place people are and thus need it. For people in warmer climates, sky lights, bay windows and other house design choices can help substantially minimize the need for artificial light to begin with.
But what do we do when the incandescent lights run out? LEDs and other technologies also are meeting the need for efficient and safer lightning, and we will discuss these in our next column.
4. http://www.ncpa.org/pub/ba637/No. 637 Wednesday, December 10, 2008 by H. Sterling Burnett and Amanda Berg
6. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/07/ AR2010090706933.html
MERCURY MYTHS AND MISSTATEMENTS
CFL supporters argue that incandescent lights create more mercury pollution than CFLs; their tortured logic claims that since mercury is released into the atmosphere from the use of coal in power plants and the incandescent lights use more electricity, then the incandescents create more mercury pollution than CFLs. But the CFLs are not much more efficient than incandescents and, more importantly, use of coal is on the decline as a power source, especially in the U.S. The claim that incandescents create more mercury pollution is largely based on emissions data from older coal power plants. Many coal plants are being converted to natural gas and new natural gas plants are coming on line to replace retiring coal plants.8 Such myopic thinking plagues many “environmental” regulations, which have no predictive power for changes in culture and technology, changes that will have far greater impacts on the environment than intrusive, industry-driven mandates. And, of course, when a bulb breaks in your house, you have mercury pollution at close range, not diffused into the atmosphere, which poses real health dangers.
Probably the happiest people about the incandescent ban and CFL boon are those in the Chinese mercury and manufacturing industries along with their U.S. lobbyists. China is the world leader in mercury production and the only place in the world CFLs are manufactured.6,7 Since the use of mercury in amalgam fillings is declining, the new CFLs provide a new market for the toxic metal.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2013.