Photo by p. Gordon/Creative Commons license, Flickr

Photo by p. Gordon/Creative Commons license, Flickr

When we published a story this week on a study that showed the negative consequences of environmental messaging on light bulbs, we suspected the subject would spark a lively debate—and our readers delivered.

The post garnered more than 2,500 Facebook “likes,” 582 tweets, 93 Google+ “+1s,” and more than 90 comments.

A few themes are worth highlighting:

“It’s Not the Labels. It’s the Light!”

A number of readers insisted it wasn’t the wording on the packaging, but the quality of the bulb that makes new lighting choices a turnoff.  “As much as I absolutely love being conservative when it comes to my resource consumption because of the savings, I absolutely prefer standard light bulbs for one reason and one reason only . . . Lighting,” said commenter Robert Henry. “The lighting with high-efficiency/energy-saving bulbs is just WAY too intense for me. I always prefer natural light if I have a choice and Fluorescent and LED bulbs just don’t provide the diffused lighting that incandescent bulbs do. Needless to say, I haven’t used incandescent bulbs for 4 years regardless, but I miss them, despite the savings I get with the energy-efficient option.

Our colleague, Brian Howard, one of the editors of National Geographic News, who has written a book on energy-efficient lighting, has offered some helpful advice for consumers who are concerned with CFL light quality: “This person should be using halogens, or “halogen hybrid” bulbs, which have the same warm light as incandescents but are more efficient,” Howard says. “It’s also true that the highest quality CFL and LED bulbs are getting very close to incandescents. Always buy Energy Star-certified CFLs, which must meet minimum performance standards for light output, startup time, and quality. If you want warmer light get warm light CFLs, not bright white. Also use shades that diffuse the light and soften it. Indirect lighting also helps with this a lot.” (Related Quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Efficient Lighting“)

Incandescent light bulbs, as designed by Thomas Edison, literally put out more heat than light, and some folks have come to rely on that feature. “It’s nice to have a few of the old style filament bulbs around to keep things in my unheated shed from freezing on those few really cold nights,” wrote aRocket Scientist.

It’s worth noting that this is an inefficient way to heat; this reader may want to try a space heater instead.

Meredith Heffernan added praise for the warm glow: “For me, they keep my headaches at bayI am very sensitive to daylight, but less efficient yellow lights don’t bother me as much. If a law were passed saying we couldn’t use these any more, it would basically be because the government wants to be more eco-friendly at the expense of others, when really it is a moral choice from person-to-person.

Other readers complained about how many of the efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs are incompatible with dimmers (true), and how some have annoying time delays before they begin to burn at full strength. Jonathan Magnus notes the risk of broken bones from stumbling around in the dark while the light heats up: “A hospital trip will put a lot more carbon into the air than a single incandescent bulb.

No doubt the light quality may be a reason that some people—no matter what their political persuasion—would prefer to avoid CFLs. But the remarkable finding of the study by Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business was that if CFL light quality really was the decisive factor, it must have rankled conservatives more than liberals because of the clear political divide in consumer behavior.

“We’re Not Mercurial. We Don’t Like Mercury!”

A number of readers said they rejected energy-efficient bulbs because of environmental concerns about the toxic metal, mercury, found in every CFL. “Just because something is labeled “Green” doesn’t mean [they’re] good for the environment and may actually be worse,” says Lets It right. CFLs “are filled with hazardous materials both for the humans and for environment. If an incandescent breaks use a broom and sweep it up. If a CFL’s breaks your better break out the hazardous material suit breather and all.”

In fact, while you won’t need a hazmat suit, the EPA has rather detailed instructions on how to properly handle a broken bulb and avoid unnecessary exposure—especially to infants, children, and pregnant women. It’s not possible to entirely rule out adverse health impacts from exposure to any amount of mercury. But most problems are caused by larger or chronic exposures. A typical CFL bulb contains  3 to 5 milligrams of mercury; the typical old-school mercury fever thermometer once found in nearly every U.S. household (and still stashed in some medicine cabinets) has 100 times more mercury—about 500 milligrams.

Just as with those old mercury thermometers, you can’t throw CFLs in the trash, which is an inconvenience. But here is the U.S. EPA list of the numerous locations where you can drop burnt-out CFL bulbs for recycling.

Keep in mind also that as long as electricity is being generated by coal power plants, those incandescent bulbs are releasing more mercury than CFLs, since the burning of coal produces mercury emissions that spread into air, soil, water, and the food chain. The EPA has estimated that due to its lower energy demand, using a 13-watt CFL prevents the release of 4.5 milligrams of mercury over its 8,000-hour lifespan.

“The Dollars Don’t Make Sense”

Some readers maintained that they steered clear of energy-efficient bulbs due to economics, not ideology. “With a cost of $20.00 each, it would take a while [to] get back the cost of that bulb in savings,” said Kobe Wild. “I’ll stick with fluorescent bulbs right now.”

Kobe’s analysis is correct for LED bulbs, but CFL bulbs generally are available for $5 per bulb. If you bought 10 CFLs to replace 60-watt incandescent bulbs, you would pay about $35 more in up-front costs, but if you used your bulbs about 1.9 hours per day (as one California study found was the average) over the course of a year, you’d save more than $37 on your utility bill, assuming the average U.S. electricity price of 11.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s payback in less than a year.

LED bulbs currently appear to be available on hardware store websites for about $15 each, so a similar ten-bulb replacement purchase would cost a consumer $135 up front for only slightly more savings per year: $41. The payback period is, indeed, “a while”: 3.3 years. But as recently as 2010, a California utility study showed LED payback period was six years, showing how rapidly the costs are plummeting. Price aside, it’s interesting that a number of readers indicated that they’d be more favorable to LEDs than to CFLs.

“So What About Those LEDs?”

When Brian updates his story to concentrate on the (relatively) reasonably priced LED replacements with 2700K light, amazing life and no disposal problems, I hope his future headline notes that ‘conservatives’ are much more friendly to the environment and are therefore much better equipped to make decisions on green technology,” wrote Tom Mariner.

I asked study author Dena Gromet why LEDs weren’t included as an option. “We did not examine them simply because of the large price differential,” she replied, “as LEDs typically retail in the $20 range for one bulb as compared to much less expensive incandescents and CFLs.”

The economics of LED bulbs may have made a poor fit for the study, but they’ve improved enough to make the bulbs a more popular choice among consumers. The bulbs burn about 25 times as long as the old incandescents and three times as long as CFL bulbs, while using less energy to boot. That means LEDs save energy, save money, and even save hassle because they needn’t be changed as often. The bulbs don’t take time to “warm up,” they work with dimmer switches, and they feature more appealing light colors—some of which can be adjusted by user choice. LEDs also contain no mercury.

Based the rate at which technology is improving and the comments of liberal and conservative readers alike, there may indeed be a brighter future for energy-efficient lighting.







  1. Mark
    December 31, 2013, 1:41 pm

    I’m getting ready to replace my fixed pin CFL canister lights (required by Title 24 when we built the house) with regular Edison base fixtures, so that I can use LED bulbs.

    Why? The CFL’s are burning out in less than a year. We have 6 out now after the latest cold snap (even though the canisters are covered in attic blow in insulation).

    See, when they started making them cheap, they lost the longevity too…..

    And with the lights in a 17 foot ceiling, I’m getting tired of putting up scaffolding just to replace them.

    The idea of forcing a “fixed CFL” light fixture was really stupid, and typical of a government regulation attempt.

  2. Karen
    May 28, 2013, 2:55 pm

    The mercury in these is being downplayed. The levels measured in the Maine cfl study show that levels above the workplace limits for acute exposure are possible. Yes limits to not be passed for the workplace for adults not for children. The workplace limit is 100,000 ng/m3 and the cronic exposure limit for a home are 300 ng/m3 (yes I realize that is a chronic limit). California is the only one who has a limit for an acute exposure in the home for children and pregnant women. It is 600 ng/m3 for one hour. The maine cfl study had some levels in the 1000’s for days. Comparing the size of the mercury to the head of a pen to show how small it is has NOTHING to do with the toxicity of something. The proponents of these things also mislead you with the following comparisons as well. Comparing it to a thermometers amount of mercury being 500-3000 mg so it can’t be that bad. But they’ve stopped making mercury thermometers and thermostats because they are too toxic. Also mercury vapor is what is toxic (you could eat mercury and it is basically non-toxic as your digestive system cant absorb much) and a thermometer would only evaporate about 50 ug of mercury vapor per hour, being diluted by air as it does making levels of mercury in air quite low, but still dangerous . A cfl puts many many times this into the air right away because it sprays mercury droplets into the air that evaporate instantly (evaporation rate based on surface area/temp). They also contaminate everything they touch. How can these even be legal without warnings plastered all over them. Please don’t say “we’ll there are no warnings on tubes and those have been used for years safely”. Well, no they haven’t, people just didnt know how toxic they actually were. As well, tubes in people’s kitchens are usually covered and tubes are harder to break. Cfls fit in lamps and low places that are easily knocked over or accidentally hit. 50 ug of mercury per litre of blood is enough to poison you. A child has 1 litre of blood. There are 5000 ug average in a bulb (but up to 20,000 ug (5-20 mg)). These are dangerous and they can contaminate your floor,couch,bedding, clothing, etc. floors in the Maine cfl study emitted mercury for months after a spill.

    Research for yourself.

  3. The Market is The People
    May 7, 2013, 5:30 pm

    As usual, the government and “environmentalists” (green lobby) are wrong and the market (CONSUMERS) is right. LED will probably kill CFLs entirely within 5 years or less. And it required a total of ZERO mandatory regulations, gov advisories, and zero spooky “hazardous clean up instructions”.

    @Bill regarding rare Earth minerals for LED production – that may or may not be true, but if the government stays out of the industry, the market will factor that cost in too. The cost would be reflected in the prices. Given that the prices are dropping so rapidly… unless the government is subsidizing or manipulating some portion of the supply chain from mining to LED production, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Anyway, common electronics even have gold & silver, yet the prices continue to drop. We’re talking about absurdly tiny amounts of uncommon materials being used.

    Market prices (absent government warping!) are a signal to society which gives us info about the most efficient use of our resources (+energy…) and labor – it’s time we start paying attention!

  4. Mara
    May 6, 2013, 8:05 pm

    How many people would actually dispose of these properly? They will end up in land fills by the millions.
    Look at the instructions for cleaning if they break. Would you want one of your children to do this if they are alone when it happens.
    efore Cleanup
    Have people and pets leave the room.
    Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.
    Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.
    Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb:
    stiff paper or cardboard;
    sticky tape;
    damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes (for hard surfaces); and
    a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag.

    During Cleanup
    DO NOT VACUUM. Vacuuming is not recommended unless broken glass remains after all other cleanup steps have been taken. Vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor.
    Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder. Scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder. Place the used tape in the glass jar or plastic bag. See the detailed cleanup instructions for more information, and for differences in cleaning up hard surfaces versus carpeting or rugs.
    Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

    After Cleanup
    Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials, including vacuum cleaner bags, outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
    Next, check with your local government about disposal requirements in your area, because some localities require fluorescent bulbs (broken or unbroken) be taken to a local recycling center. If there is no such requirement in your area, you can dispose of the materials with your household trash.
    If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.
    Actions you can take to prevent broken compact fluorescent light bulbs
    Information from other sources relating to the accidental breakage of CFLs
    Top of page
    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.
    Top of 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.
    However, if you are concerned about your health after cleaning up a broken CFL, consult your local poison control center. You can reach your local poison control center anywhere in the U.S. by calling 1-800-222-1222. You can call your poison control center any time you have questions or in an emergency. You can also consult your physician about potential health effects from mercury exposures.


  5. ed llorca
    May 6, 2013, 12:54 pm

    that article was not very forward thinking. I just bought 8w led bulbs for $11US each. that isn’t the bottom yet even…

  6. cassius king
    May 5, 2013, 9:55 am

    Your comment that a space heater is more efficient way to heat a garage than a light bulb displays distinct ignorance of physics. They both emit EMR in varying frequencies. THE MATERIAL IN THE GARAGE ABSORBS ALL OF IT . Absorbing the energy keeps the garage warmer whether it started out as IR or visible light.

  7. Lorena
    Manitoba Canada
    May 5, 2013, 8:11 am

    Hey what we recommend is only change to LED the most used lights and or hard to reach places. You will save up to 30% on your power bill. When you buy in bulk you get a discount. the are dimmable and can be repaired at our bulbs can. If you live off grid solar then you should only use LED as you do not want your power being used up for lights.

  8. Bill
    Oregon, USA
    May 4, 2013, 2:16 pm

    Don’t the bright LED’s have an additional environmental downside in that they require rare earth minerals, the extraction of which is very energy intensive?