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. Josh Derak
    Canada
    November 15, 4:34 am

    I’ve never had a CFL bulb last nearly as long as advertised. They seem to last as long as an incandescent and gave off an unpleasant light.
    I now have switched most of the bulbs in my home to Cree LED bulbs and one Philips bulb in the kitchen. The Philips makes the claim the bulb will last 18 years and the Cree bulbs have a 10 year warranty.
    At this rate, LED bulb companies will go out of business… I hope they don’t.

  2. Paula Angel
    Des Plaines, IL
    October 29, 12:54 pm

    to Jerry Steinberg et al., that are complaining about the cost of the lightbulbs and the length of time they’re supposed to last…, first of all, those estimates are based on using the CFL’s 3 to 6 hours a day—the ones I purchased yesterday are based on a 3-hour-a day-use — i’ve seen some packaging say 6 hours. As for the cost, if you do what I say you should only have to put out only the initial cost of the bulbs, thereafter they should be free. Before you become skeptical and start calling me names or commenting with negative feedback, the following suggestion came from an employee from Home Depot. I’ve been doing this for years and have never encountered any problem. What you do is save all the packaging from the bulbs (although how you open them doesn’t really matter, I try to use a razor knife around the back so I can slide the bulb(s) back in [mire on this below]—any way you choose is fine…, just so you save the packaging no matter what). You also must save the receipt—it helps if you tape or staple it to any packaging so you don’t lose it. Now, when each bulb burns out, you simply return to the store from where you purchased them and say you want to exchange them because they didn’t last anywhere near the time claimed. It works every time. It would be different if you wanted your money back…but you’re only asking for an exchange so they couldn’t care less. As a matter of fact, most major stores like Walmart, Menard’s, and Home Depot, will honor any exchange, even if you don’t have your receipt. The purpose of being able to return the bulb to its package as I mentioned above is in case you let them accumulate (i.e., I have a 4-bulb bathroom fixture so I wait till all 4 burn out).

    I hope this helps some of you…, OMG! I live on a very fixed income and would never be able to afford CFLs—especially since I’ve completely changed over from incandescent lighting and use more CFLs than most because I have over 100 houseplants which thrive in places where I have to depend on artificial lighting—I buy only the bulbs marked DAYLIGHT—otherwise everything looks too yellow and the yellow bulbs aren’t as bright (always check the LUMENS…, more means brighter). And remember too that in fixtures that warn you to use no more than for instance a 60-watt bulb, you can now use one that is 100 watts since it only uses 26 watts! One last thing…, Walmart has the best pricing, especially if you buy 3- or 4-bulb packaging. Also always look for ComEd’s signs offering lower priced bulbs.

  3. Tracy Davis
    Austin, TX
    October 25, 4:37 pm

    Just bought a new Ryland home. They use the worst bulbs when they build a new home. (Because they are suppose to be energy efficient) I CANNOT SEE, ANYTHING!!! I’m having to go to great expense to try to use these new bulbs. When a ceiling fan has 4 lights and you have 7 fans and the bulbs are $10 each… Do the math!!! Can’t afford it!!! I’m replacing with old style!!!

  4. Rickter
    MARYLAND
    October 23, 9:44 pm

    CFLs are dangerous. How many people actually dispose of them properly, 10%?. Where are they going? Landfills and into the ground water. If a bulb breaks, do you really know how much it will affect your children 20 years later, plus the fish mercury, plus the mercury we don’t know about. Like asbestos, wait til you find out how bad mercury REALLY is 20 years from now. Spend the extra, go LED.

  5. Dan
    Toledo
    September 23, 8:40 pm

    100%cfl for $save. Outa Bush’s mouth corporate wellfare.