A recent post on the U.S. phase-out of 40- and 60-watt low-efficiency incandescent light bulbs, which became official January 1, elicited a lot of response from readers.  Many commenters were critical of the ban, dictated by legislation passed in 2007 by Congress and signed into law by then-President George W. Bush.  (See related post: “U.S. Phase-Out of Incandescent Light Bulbs Continues in 2014 with 40-, 60-Watt Bulbs.”)

While a recent poll showed that 65 percent of Americans plan to switch to electricity-saving lighting such as compact fluorescent (CFL), light-emitting diode (LED) or halogen bulbs rather than hoarding the old incandescent bulbs, many readers were deeply worried—and sometimes outright angry—about what they saw as safety risks, high cost and poor performance of the replacement technologies. (Take the quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Energy-Efficient Lighting.”)

We examine five of those concerns here.

1. The energy-saving replacements are too expensive.   One reader complained that he had shopped for replacements for his 60-watt incandescent bulbs at Wal-Mart and was shocked by the price. “Forget it,” he wrote. “I have stockpiled five dozen old bulbs.”  It is true that CFLS are often several times as expensive as old-style incandescent bulbs, which retailed for less than $1, and LEDs—though their prices have been dropping—remain more than 10 times as expensive. But sticking with old bulbs actually would cost consumers far more money over the long run. Noah Horowitz, an environmental engineer and director of the center for energy efficiency at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email that because CFLs use far less electricity and last longer, someone who switches will save $30 to $50 on their electric bill over the bulb’s six- to ten-year lifespan. (See related: “Light Bulb Savings Calculator.”)

2. CFL bulbs are dangerous because of their mercury content. A number of readers were alarmed that CFL bulbs contained hazardous mercury, and were worried about being exposed to it if the bulbs broke. “I have six kids,” one commenter noted. “I can’t take the chance of having these hazards in my house!” But research indicates that while CFL bulbs do require more careful handling and disposal, the hazard may be blown out of proportion.  According to a 2008 article on the issue in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives, CFLs typically contain from three to five milligrams of mercury—about one hundredth of the mercury content of the older thermostats that may still be found in some homes.  Researchers have found that only a tiny fraction of that is actually released when bulbs break. For example, in a study published in 2011 in the journal Environmental Engineering Science, Jackson State University researchers Yadong Li and Li Jin reported that even if left unattended for 24 hours, a broken bulb will release from 0.04 to 0.7 milligrams of mercury.  The researchers found that it would take weeks for the amount of mercury vapor in the room to reach levels that would be hazardous to a child. That can be avoided by quickly following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s simple procedure for safe cleanup.  Additionally, Horowitz suggests: “When your CFL stops working put it in a Ziploc bag and take it to Home Depot or Lowe’s, who will recycle it for you for free.”  Another way to look at the mercury content of CFLs: reducing electricity consumption by using more efficient lights might help reduce the amount of mercury emitted into the atmosphere by coal-burning power plants, the biggest single source of mercury pollution in the air. (See related story: “Pro-Environment Light Bulb Labeling Turns Off Conservative Buyers, Study Finds.”)

3. CFL bulbs are dangerous because of ultraviolet radiation leakage. Two readers pointed with alarm to a 2012 study by Stony Brook University researchers, which found that most CFL bulbs have defects that allow UV radiation to leak at levels that could damage skin cells if a person is directly exposed at close range. The study’s lead researcher, materials science and engineering professor Miriam Rafailovich, told National Geographic News that she believes the defects occur during manufacturing or shipping. “This is something that could be remedied,” she said. In the meantime, she recommends that users shield the bulbs inside fixtures, stay one to two feet away from them, and avoid staring directly into the CFL bulb. That advice is basically consistent with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s safety recommendations. A 2009 Canadian government study found that at distances of more than 11 inches, UV radiation from a CFL isn’t any more than that of a conventional incandescent bulb. From the National Institutes of Health, here’s an analysis of the Stony Brook study and other research on CFLs and UV radiation.

4. The new bulbs either can’t be used with dimmer switches, or don’t work efficiently with them.That is true of the regular CFL bulbs sold in stores, but most of the LED bulbs on the market today are, in fact, dimmable, according to Horowitz. He advised consumers to look for LEDs whose packaging indicates that they work with dimmer switches.

 5. CFLs won’t light up, or are too dim, in cold temperatures. Horowitz says this is a legitimate criticism of CFL, which have a hard time starting up in extremely cold climates. “If your bulb is located outdoors, say in your porch light, and you want an energy saving bulb, go with LEDs,” he advised.

Comments

  1. Jerry Steinberg
    Canada
    September 16, 2:40 pm

    When compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) were first introduced, I was enthusiastic about replacing my 60-and 100-watt incandescent bulbs with CFLs that claimed to use one quarter of the power, and last 10 (or more) times as long, while delivering the same amount of light. I ran out and bought about 50 CFLs (at ten to fifteen times the price of incandescents) and scurried around my house replacing perfectly good incandescents with CFLs.

    Then, within six months, I found myself replacing dimmed and burned out CFLs (which had survived only a minute fraction of their promised lifespan) with the incandescents that I had removed a short time before.

    As a Canadian, I feel that I have been scammed by the manufacturers of those CFLs (Sylvania, GE, Philips, Luminus, Pricemark, etc.), and ripped off by the Harper (Conservative) government that had promoted them, had outlawed incandescents, and had collected tax on all of those very expensive CFL bulbs. I have even begun to question their energy-saving claims.

    I’m beginning to feel the same about LEDs, as their performance in our back yard has been a major disappointment to us. We spent an additional thousand dollars for LEDs, yet we’ve had to replace several already, and they were installed only a few years ago.

    Jerry Steinberg

  2. joanna
    NJ
    September 16, 2:01 pm

    Well well my friends house almost went on fire yesterday because of these wonderful new lightbulbs? Now we worry!
    “Ok. Trying to be green/ energy efficient and this is the product they put out there? I was getting ready and it started to flicker, walked out of the bathroom to do something and came back in to heavy smoke and a horrible burning smell. Really, I leave lights on when we go out for Dylan, and now I have to worry about possible fire?”

  3. Ali Sayed
    September 16, 1:15 pm

    Why all concerns about CFL what about fluorescent tubes? is it OK ? is it safer?

  4. Andrew S.
    United States
    September 15, 12:31 pm

    I for one have always preferred the light from fluorescent and have all fluorescent lighting.
    That being said I do NOT think the govt. should regulate lighting!
    This is a free country and lighting should be a choice.

  5. Tricia
    Wisc.
    September 7, 5:48 pm

    I head the pros & cons. I don;t like the cons especially the clean up. Seems to me the clean up for each bulb broken will fill the land fill quicker than the present bulbs.

  6. Fran Blank
    New London Ohio
    September 3, 12:45 pm

    As an adult with macular degeneration problems the CFL’s are WAY too harsh for me. I cannot bear to be around the light – they give me a constant, exhausting, squint. Especially if the bulb is not covered by a shade. I will continue to use the old fashioned bulbs and be able to read and do what I need to do without them. Generic is NOT for everyone.

  7. Will F.
    Colorado
    August 27, 1:40 am

    I shouldn’t have to switch from my classic energy wasting lightbulbs, just like i shouldn’t have to switch from my 2stroke 10mpg car, and dispose of my batteries in my fireplace. Why should i care about energy use and pollution when i’ll be dead in 10 years and it’ll be the problem of all the punk kids i don’t like anyways. My temporary peace of mind not having to change my ways is far more important than the survival of our species.

  8. Adam
    Arizona
    August 25, 4:39 pm

    I have switched 90% of the bulbs in my house to LED’s and or CFLs over he last four months. I am concerned however that the LED bulbs simply DO NOT LAST anywhere near as long as the manufacturer claims they should. I’ve paid anywhere from $8 to $16 dollars per bulb and have already replaced two (2) of them in less than a year. LESS THAN A YEAR! I do not care what the package claims or what the manufacturers say. Until these bulbs become more reliable and long lasting, I will not pay for another LED bulb, even if there are laws made. As it stands, they are not cost effective. I’m into the hundreds of dollars spent and already replaced two bulbs in less than a year.
    Don’t be fooled and research well before you spend a dime on these LED bulbs. Be sure you buy dimmer bulbs if you are using them in Lights which have adjustable dim or multi stage light switches or knobs like in some bedside lamps that switch from dim to bright. Also the enclosure is important as well as the attitude/angle of the bulb sits in it’s socket. Some bulbs can only be used in a certain housings and get angry and quit if mounted sideways or upside down. Hope this helps someone. Wish I had known before hand.

  9. Chris Leverich
    Los Angeles, CA
    August 21, 5:53 pm

    I’m unfamiliar with CFLs, but LED bulbs come in every color now. From warm 2700k to the coolest 6000k and everything in between. I prefer 4000k which is a true neutral white light. No dull amber, and no blue-ish color, either. And they last FOREVER!

  10. Roland
    Sabine Pass
    August 14, 1:09 pm

    Its not true that CFL`s last longer. Even a minor transiente in the electric supply trips them all at once and this makes supplyiers and manufacturers the only ones that come out grinning with that technology. The other point is that you will not find a CFL bulb with the same color/temperature to replace the old type one at the WalMart next door. Those Day=Light are only good to light my dogs=house..