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. Merle Waterman
    Bath, PA
    April 16, 1:54 pm

    We just replaced all our bulbs with warm light LEDs. The price in Home Depot came down from $12.00 plus per 60W equivelant to about $5.00 . We had purchased a bunch at $8.00 last year to replace our overhead lights and just love the soft bright Light they give.

  2. A fellow human
    April 15, 8:42 pm

    Hello,
    Let me start off by saying that I am an engineer, and have a great deal of knowledge and education in the areas of electricity and components thereof, physics, as well as environmental health and safety. This is a good article and the points that are made are accurate and should be trusted by readers. Please take the information that I will give in this post as accurate and unbiased, as I would not post misinformation and use my credentials to support it.

    I must dispel a few other misguided myths/concerns brought up by people below me in the comment section. With regards to light color/quality, you must be aware that recent advances in technology have made this concern a non-issue, as todays CFL’s and LED’s offer perfectly incandescent-competitive color properties. Most bulbs are made in a 2700K option, which is the exact same color temperature produced by an incandescent, and nearly all have a color rendering index (CRI) of 82 or higher (some as high as 96). With this in mind, know that it is a generally accepted scientific fact that most people cannot detect CRI differences above 80. It truly is nearly impossible to tell the difference when utilizing the correct product that suits your needs

    The argument made by a previous commenter that he actually saw a 31W usage out of a 14W CFL is something that I must call bogus on. Unless there is a highly unusual manufacturing default in the circuitry, this is essentially impossible to occur, as the ballast/drivers can only function on very close to the listed wattage, no more, no less. There is no such thing as a .6 power factor for an LED/CFL bulb, as it simply is not possible without a severe defect due to the electrical design of the components. If you install LED or CFL lighting, you will absolutely and undoubtedly see cost savings in your electricity bill. The initial investment is high, but like any good investment, the payback greatly outweighs it and the ROI is on the scale of a few months, which the long-life bulbs will greatly outlast.

    The mercury in CFLs truly is not an issue, as the way that they are made causes nearly all of the mercury to stay inside the bulb if it breaks. That being said, this is not an issue with LEDs, which end up being the best investment regardless.

    If you are worried about EMF’s, you should be very much more concerned about the world that we live in than about light bulbs. Your cell phone and wifi router each produce hundreds of times more EMF’s than a tiny LED driver ever could, and this should be the least of your worries.

    LED lighting is the way of the future. Please don’t be one of the people that hide from a positive change by hoarding years worth of incandescents. You are voluntarily spending more money to contribute more towards global pollution and climate change by doing so. Please save your money and contribute a bit of your part into helping the future of our fragile world. Thanks for reading

  3. Doug Lindsey
    Arizona
    April 13, 6:14 pm

    Boy the debate. Look Cfls do save IF you were using a 100 watt light bulb in a lamp for example. I remembered my grandmother always using 25 watt incandescent bulbs in her home (one bulb per room in a porcelain socket in the center of the room). I actually have fond memories sitting on the porch under a GE Clear 25 watt bulb. The mood was warm and great and you could see the stars. My neighbor just replaced all of his yellow bug light bulbs (I use to complain about) with 6500k blue LEDs now I feel I’m next to a prison. Everyone was complaining to him now. He didn’t like the color himself and asked me (I am a Licensed Master Electrician) on what to do. He asked about my home on how I got my home to look warm and classy at night. I told him use a 15 watt clear incandescent in his driveway post lights, a 25 watt clear incandescent in his porch lights. Everyone compliments him. Now get this I put a 14watt (40 watt equal) cfl on the bench meter and I am getting 31 watts actual use out of it. This is because of cfls poor power factor. LEDs are the same it’s crazy. One thing is absolute the manufactures lobbied this energy saving crap to increase profits per bulb sold. As an electrician I have seen hundreds of people drop hundreds of dollars switching out bulbs not to see any savings on their bill. If they do see a savings it’s generally because they became more energy minded after the switch and lowered thermostat for example. Did you know turning your 5ton A/C off for 3 hours in the heat of summer would save you enough energy to power your incandescent lights for the whole year? Why does the government not mention these things. A 5ton heat pump surges to 60,000 watts why do have a double 60 amp breaker on it?. Do you want to save the environment? Get a better fuel mileage car, eliminate 1500 watt sink disposal, wash those 4 dishes by hand and save 2000 watts from the heating element in the dishwasher, air dry cloths when possible saving 4,500 watts@240 volts. In dryer climates use a whole house swamp cooler that uses 1,500 watts compared to a 60,000 watt 5ton heat pump, towel dry your hair saving 2000 watts from the hair dryer, shave with an old razor and save 1,100 watts from your electric shaver, turn your 5,000 watt pool pump off an extra hour a day. Really people the great debate on saving 15 watts on a light bulb. Which is $.01 a year over using a 40 watt incandescent. If you would switch to a 25 watt bulb if you could deal with the dimmer light you would actually save power since incandescent bulbs have a perfect 1 power factor (not .6 like cfl or led) and with an incandescent you get 100% CRI (color retention) cfls and LEDs at best are only 60 to 80% color retention that’s why they look pink or blue depending on what kelvin color you bought. Don’t even get me started on EMFs emitted from ballasted cfls and LEDs. You know that buzz or hum that suddenly appeared after switched to energy saving bulbs is the 60hz noise from your new bulbs. Take A radio set it on “am” and move close to a led or cfl and then away listen to the EMIs (electro magnetic interference). You be the judge. Most of you did try to switch and there is a reason why things did not feel right when you switched out your bulbs. No I’m not a troll, nor am I trying to stir controversy. I am mearly stating a fact from my training and testing (ironically administered by the same government who says cfls are better) now yes in a commercial environment where thousands of lumens are needed or even your kitchen at home where you need task lighting obviously fluorescents have there place. I have change many recessed lights where people have put a giant cfl in it and it overheated and caught fire. Granted the fire was contained to the fixture however it had to be replaced. Most Cfls and LEDs do not like recessed sealed lighting. They cannot sink heat Way and will fail.

  4. Lumenstar.de
    Germany
    April 11, 6:16 am

    As compare to cfl bulbs – Led are booming as they consume less electricity and the life of LED bulbs are quite higher as compare to CFL or any other traditional bulbs

    Further perfectly said that LED bulbs cost higher but in the long run they are profitable as the lifetime is more than 80K hours

    Thanks
    Lumenstar Team

  5. dave
    April 9, 10:32 pm

    @Cathy
    Where do you think that mercury came from in the first place? Could it be that we are safer mining it out of our environment and encapsulating it in bulbs than not doing it?

    However, the amount of mercury in a moderm bulb is very low. Your exposure is much higher eating tuna and other higher food chain fish.

    As far as natural resources vs drinking water, instead of focusing on every possible contaminant one at a time, I propose that we instead focus on maximum effectiveness in treating the water.

    Living near an airport I find my patio getting darker year by year, except under pots where the jet fuel exhaust can’t land. *Things* will always find their way into a water supply so the important factor is a comprehensive way to remove everything that shouldn’t be in it.

  6. Just stephens
    Ontario canada
    April 6, 12:26 pm

    Led lights are arip off

  7. Cathy
    Pensacola, FL
    March 29, 9:19 am

    Many people unfortunately do not recycle. Where are those mercury-filled light bulbs going? To the Landfills? Aren’t we already a little paranoid about drinking our ground water, let alone adding mercury to it? What’s next? I’m all about conserving our energy BUT I’m also concerned about our natural resources.

  8. shieldwolf
    earth
    March 28, 2:46 pm

    The whole thing is just a rip off as we all see it blindly!

  9. Joe
    Kingsville,Ont
    March 22, 8:17 am

    I removed the cfls from the bathroom and hallways and am only usuing them over the kitchen and dining room tables where they will be on for long periods of time. I recently discovered that these bulbs draw the equivalent of 4 hours’ worth of energy during start up than a conventional bulb. on. Not practical where you turn lights on and off frequently.I am starting to convert to the halogen bulbs.They are on average 33% more energy efficient than regular incandescant and cheaper than cfls.I would like to use led’s but at $30. a bulb??Our electricity bills are very manageable as the whole family is on board with conserving energy. We have the smart meter and our highest bill this winter was $130.00 . Unplug laptops,phone chagers,clean furnace filters monthly,fridge and freezer coils and vents,dryer lint catchers and ducts,electric baseboard heaters and all household appliance and computer vents. Even bathroom vents. You would be amazed at how much energy is saved when these things,like us, can breathe!!