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.


  1. Preston
    January 9, 2014, 8:53 pm

    If you’re still hardwired to constantly turn off and on your CFLs all night, then yes you’ll wear your bulbs out quicker. They cost next to nothing to have on, but they are limited by the number of ignitions in them.

  2. Patrick J. Kiger
    January 9, 2014, 4:49 pm

    Actually, it was the Express, a British tabloid, that reported that story in 2011. http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/241807/New-lightbulbs-in-cancer-scare It also was picked up by another newspaper, the Telegraph. It seems to have been based upon tests performed at a German commercial laboratory, and as far as I can find, the results—which conflict with previous laboratory testing of CFLs http://www.oeko.de/files/download/application/pdf/fqa_lampen_en.pdf haven’t been submitted to a scientific journal for vetting. The Express story contains a number of statements that I find problematic. For example, the paper describes phenol as a carcinogen, when in fact, CDC and EPA do not classify it as a human carcinogen. It’s also worth noting that phenol is an ingredient in mouthwashes and throat lozenges. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/substances/toxsubstance.asp? toxid=27 Grist offers a critique to the Telegraph report http://grist.org/green-home/2011-05-30-dim-bulbs-umbra-on-the-supposed-dangers-of-cfls/

  3. Aaron
    United Kingdom
    January 9, 2014, 2:39 pm

    What about the cancer causing “smog” that is produced by these light bulbs? Extremely dangerous chemicals being released when switched on. Not to mention the highly dangerous chemicals released when the bulb breaks.

    It was reported in the UK’s Times and Mail newspapers.

  4. Jim
    January 9, 2014, 11:38 am

    My experience with CFL’s is the lifetime is overstated by about a factor of at least three. The energy savings quoted does not include the energy required to make the bulbs. The energy required to make a CFL must be significantly higher than for an incandescent bulb. I woluld approve of more energy efficent light bulbs but I expected more accurate information from National Geographic.

  5. Patrick J. Kiger
    January 9, 2014, 11:11 am

    Actually, what the Lupus Foundation of America says is that “regardless of the type of lighting used in your home or office, it is best to have lamps covered with a shade or filter.”
    According to this 2009 medical journal article, unshielded conventional 60-watt incandescent bulbs also emit enough UV radiation to be a problem for lupus patients. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2829662/)

  6. T Messer
    January 9, 2014, 10:47 am

    Good Way To Help Global Warming. Spread Mercury.

  7. David
    Columbus, MS
    January 9, 2014, 8:36 am

    My experience with CFL bulbs is that they DON’T last 8-10 years. More like 9 months to 1 year. I’ve dated the bulbs before installation.
    And these are GE bulbs. Not some non-brand cheapos.

  8. Christina Wilson
    United States
    January 8, 2014, 10:49 pm

    They only save money if they last more than a few months. They don’t.

  9. Roi'ikka-Ta Globetrotter
    United States
    January 8, 2014, 10:21 pm

    they really need to ban CFLs is what they need to do so we dont have a whole bunch of mercury going around everywhere ..

  10. S. Yamada
    January 8, 2014, 8:32 pm

    Lupus association warns that the new energy-saving light bulbs have a high dose of ultraviolet. Lupus patients should apparently keep on using the old bulbs for any close reading lamps to avoid flare-ups. Talk to your doctor to confirm.

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