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. Emma Harris
    January 16, 2014, 7:28 am

    Thanks for clearing that up! This is a must read! LED lights are the future of lighting. Aside from using less energy and being friendly to the eyes, it gives a home a very modern and sophisticated feel. I’m all about using LED lamps and pendants but one great tip that I’ve read someplace else is with the use of under cabinet lighting like this http://tinyurl.com/a5lsydd. Install these under cabinets – great look!

  2. Dave
    CA
    January 14, 2014, 10:00 pm

    What about FIPEL lighting ? I do not like CFL because of the reasons you write about. Poor lighting and toxicity.

  3. Giancarlo
    Rialto, California
    January 14, 2014, 3:38 pm

    I just finished changed all the light bulbs in my house from CFLs to a LED. Even though they are more expensive, the light is so much better and I am saving an extra 1 to 2 watts per light bulb. I an understand that the price difference is great but if you buy the in bulk at Costco or Sams Club you won’t feel the hit so much.

  4. Maria Kerby
    Kingston, Ontario
    January 13, 2014, 3:29 pm

    The problem with the CFL’s isn’t mercury poisoning from broken bulbs, it that a large % of them end up in landfills and the concerns with leachate and runoff. In my town Home Depot has ended their CFL recycling program meaning they have to be dropped off at the hazardous waste depot. I know that they’re getting thrown in the trash. I’d love to see a study on the
    # of CFL’s purchased vs the # recycled. Why replace one technology with one that’s potentially more harmful?

  5. P Boentaran
    Jakarta, Indonesia
    January 13, 2014, 2:33 pm

    I’m surprised that the Americans are not open-minded as people in developing countries like Indonesia. My family has been using CFLs since 1980s and recently we started using LEDs. The government doesn’t have to regulate the use of incadescent, people just chose CFLs or LEDs that are more efficient and emit less heat. As for the light they produce, you should compare those with the same level of energy consumption

  6. Dr Dev Gupta
    US
    January 13, 2014, 1:58 pm

    The arrogant Soviet style Nomenklatura that has taken over the US and now dictate our public policies make random decisions over a cup of coffee at Starbucks ( yes its their’s ) and then expect us to follow them ! CFLs are an unmitigated disaster ( not just because of Hg ) and LEDs are still far from being long – lasting or cost – effective ( I am involved in R&D for them ). Shutting down the sale of incandescent lamps before credible solutions are ready is accompanied by putting out misleading statistics !

  7. Anonymous
    January 11, 2014, 11:48 pm

    I think the reason for the switch is more about energy usage and an attempt lower greenhouse gas emissions. If you think about it, if everyone uses CFL lightbulbs the energy that we are using will be much less as a result powerplants that emit greenhouse gases will not have to create as much power thus lowering CO2 emissions which is what the US must do if they want to contribute to the kyoto protocal. I think it is a really good Idea.

  8. Bob
    CA
    January 11, 2014, 1:15 am

    ^CFLs contain under 0.4 mg mercury, whereas the thermometers contain ~500 mg of mercury.
    As for them not offering the “look” of incandescent, oh boy…

  9. Jeff
    West Virginia
    January 10, 2014, 10:12 pm

    I started a gradual move to CFL bulbs about 10 years ago. Mine were mostly Sylvania and some have been working since I bought them in 2004, but two stopped working after just a few months. Just like the old incandescent bulbs, some will not work as long as others regardless of who made them.

  10. Chris Szczepanski
    NJ
    January 10, 2014, 11:47 am

    I too have dated the CFLs and found that they last less than 2 years. I don’t think the light that they give off is as good as the old incandescent. As far as saving money? Oh please people p**** away money on Starbucks, Iphones, cable TV, et al. Let ME decide where i want to “waste” my money.
    Besides they contain mercury. The powers that be took away my old mercury thermometers but allow Hg in lightbulb?