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. Jun Asunto
    Manila, Philippines
    March 5, 2014, 10:34 am

    About cfl, I’m worried about it’s radiation effects, although I have to alternate between incandescent bulb (low wattage bulb). About the lifespan of cfl- some cfl last more than 4 years, others takes only months maybe due to type of locations and the brand itself. But for LED, as of now, it is not a viable alternative to cfl due to its high cost and still much to be improve on this kind of tech. for general lighthing applications.

  2. Steven Sherman
    February 15, 2014, 4:10 pm

    If you want to upgrade your lighting system to efficient LEDs without the up-front costs, consider joining the Dollar LED Club. For just a $1/bulb/month you can lease high quality LEDs. After two years the bulbs are yours and you continue to save.

  3. Don
    St Paul Minnesota
    February 9, 2014, 10:29 pm

    I had cfls in several lamps in my home. I removed most of them because I did not like the light quality. I also found one of them got so hot that I burned my finger on it. Then I got to thinking about what it takes to make them and then to recycle them , I don’t believe for one second that these are a better bulb.
    This reminds me of the vinyl window scam. Where it takes about 40 years to pay for windows that have a life expectancy of 20 years(dept of the interior statement not mine, sorry no link at this time, but is easy to find). Also they only compare 100 year old wood windows (that are repairable by the way) with brand new vinyl ones (that not repairable).
    The answer is an alternate energy source , not stupid mandates like this that only prolong the inevitable. THAT IS THE NEED FOR A BETTER AND RENEWABLE SOURCE OF ENERGY. But that wouldn’t put more money into the greedy corporations that are perpetrating this scam.
    Sorry for the rant but this sort of thing angers me.

  4. James
    Miami FL
    February 9, 2014, 11:03 am

    To everyone: CFL lights do not like to be turned on for short durations then switched off. Fluorescent lights of all types will have a shorter life if turned on and off frequently. LED lights are far better for short duty cycles. LED is also better for long duty cycles.

    I have already switched out many of my bulbs for LED. My porch lights are LED, my garage lights (one stays on all the time for the cats to see to poop) are LED, and inside my home almost all the downstairs lights are LED as are the lights in the master bathroom. The unused rooms still have CFL or incandescent, but I will go LED as they burn out. The staircase lights are hard to get to so they WILL be LED as soon as they burn out. I want to replace them once and never again. Incandescent lights are super old technology. Do you still cook over a wood or coal stove?? Your basic incandescent is just as old. You will love LED.

  5. vijay raina
    February 1, 2014, 12:05 am

    I wonder why manufacturers are promoting CFL lamps instead of not going for conventional Fluorescent lighting. Over the last decade I have observed that the life span claim of CFL lamps is a complete farce. Instead FTLs last even longer than theoretical life. Besides the electronics associated with CFL and LED lamps breaks down with even minor surges in the supply line. We should not forget to compare energy consumption with FTL too instead of just CFL lamps.

  6. Julie
    Niceville, FL
    January 29, 2014, 11:09 am

    I totally agree with George! I’m so aggravated because I moved in May (8 months ago) and changed to CFL bulbs throughout the bathrooms, etc. I’m constantly having them go out – 6 months of occasional use! That’s not lasting longer at all!! I had the same problem in TX, but since moving here, I know exactly how long I’ve been here. And I’ve had at least 6 die on me. Ridiculous!

  7. Christopher W.Jarvis
    Carrollton,Texas.U.S.A.
    January 29, 2014, 3:19 am

    Ya’know we just dont have the answer yet when we dont make the change for what is best. Odont have the
    safety #1.
    of how it is made, what it is made with,
    can we recycle the product safely to a new product again with same

  8. George
    Southern California
    January 22, 2014, 11:40 pm

    Have anyone of you out there actually seen a CFL’s last more than 2 years (regular use). I even went to the length of having my entire house rewired (including upgrading the electrical panel) to rule out faulty wiring excuses by the CFL manufacturers. I then purchases 3 cases of r40 cfl’s (each box from a different manufacturer ( and 30 cfl, s per box)… With the exception of one bulb that lasted up to18 months, I replaced every other bulb in my house at least twice. My house uses a total of 32 R40 cfl bulbs. In 18 months I used a total of 90 bulbs that cost a lot more ( on the environment) to produce than conventional light bulbs that regularly would last 2 to 3 years. Conventional bulbs do cost less and last much longer than cfl’s contrary to what manufacturers claim. Ya, cfl’s do use less wattage but cost more energy to produce than 4 conventional bulbs and last half as long as a conventional bulb. If you still think that cfl’s are green boy are you hiding under a rock…And no, cfl’s do not save you money in the long run because in a matter of 5 years, you may go through 2.5 times more cfl’s than conventional bulbs. On an r40 bulb cfl’s run $7 dollars verses $1.50 on conventional dimmable r40. That’s $100.00 ( conventional r40) verses $672.00 in cfl’s. Don’t forget that CFL’s require extra energy to produce (4xmore) and require millions of dollars in resources per year just to recycle. Conventional incandescent bulbs are safer, more environmentally friendly to produce and much less of an impact to rid than a CFL!

  9. Lorena Mitchell
    Manitoba
    January 18, 2014, 9:11 am

    Patti although your friend is right you are doing yourself no service by go back to incandescent bulb. My house is all LED and I run my house with 2.2kw of solar. Power outages in your area? I don’t have to worry anymore.

  10. Patti
    Ontario Canada
    January 16, 2014, 7:08 pm

    I have had CFLs in my house for at least 8 years. I am now buying all the 40 and 60 watt incandescent bulbs I can find to stock up. There is no limit to how many I will buy before I can’t find them anymore. I plan on switching out every CFL bulb in my house back to an incandescent. The lighting is much warmer but more importantly is more healthier. I had a CFL in my bedroom light. I wondered why I was getting headaches. Someone told me to pull the CFL and go back to incandescent. Since doing that, I rarely have headaches now. I read in bed. I worried that my eyesight was worsening and I needed glasses. I don’t need glasses (optometrist confirmed), I just need healthier light bulbs! Too little research on health effects of CFLs and LEDs. I fear this follows in line with the Smart Meter and wind turbines….pushed down our throats by the Green Team.