Green shock: CFLs more dangerous than first thought

posted at 8:32 pm on March 19, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

The compact fluorescent lightbulb has plenty of supporters in the environmental movement, even while concerns have grown about their disposal. CFLs contain mercury, and when the glass breaks, it spreads the toxic dust in the area. Boosters had previously dismissed concerns over the issue, but now researches worry about the collective effect their massive disposal will have on landfills once they start failing in large numbers:

Compact fluorescent light bulbs, long touted by environmentalists as a more efficient and longer-lasting alternative to the incandescent bulbs that have lighted homes for more than a century, are running into resistance from waste industry officials and some environmental scientists, who warn that the bulbs’ poisonous innards pose a bigger threat to health and the environment than previously thought. …

As long as the mercury is contained in the bulb, CFLs are perfectly safe. But eventually, any bulbs — even CFLs — break or burn out, and most consumers simply throw them out in the trash, said Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and editor of the journal Environmental Research.

“This is an enormous amount of mercury that’s going to enter the waste stream at present with no preparation for it,” she said.

Even a single CFL could provide toxic levels of exposure for mercury. One contains five milligrams of mercury, which would be enough to contaminate 6,000 gallons of drinking water. Low-mercury models have about one-sixth of the amount, but that’s still enough to contaminate 1,000 gallons. It makes the CFL one of the most toxic components of a household, one that causes kidney and brain damage when people get exposed to enough of it.

What happens when an incandescent bulb hits the floor? Simple: sweep it up, and try not to step on a shard of glass with bare feet. Here’s how people need to handle a broken CFL:

1. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
2. Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.
3. Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
4. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
5. Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the glass jar or plastic bag.
6. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.
7. Immediately place all cleanup materials outside the building in a trash container or outdoor protected area for the next normal trash.
8. Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing cleanup materials.
9. Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states prohibit such trash disposal and require that broken and unbroken lamps be taken to a recycling center.
10. For at least the next few times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window prior to vacuuming.
11. Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.

Er, that’s quite a commitment for a lightbulb. I have several of these around the house, and I had no idea that a break could require such an intense cleanup. Like others who bought these products, I hoped to save a little energy and drive down replacement costs.

And guess what — I can’t even throw these in the garbage, broken or unbroken. As MS-NBC reports, Minnesota requires that I take any CFLs to a disposal center certified to handle them. I didn’t know that until tonight, and I have no idea where such a center might be. It does make sense, though, considering the disposal issues involving mercury.

In other words, we have opted for a product that has much more impact on our environment and could turn households into toxic-waste sites to replace a product that uses a little more energy, a change driven ironically by environmentalists. What’s next — lead containers to replace Tupperware?


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I have been using CFLs for several years. My first couple burnt out rather soon. So I started writing the installation date on the base. Over many bulbs of various brands, I am averaging about a year’s life per bulb. This is MUCH LOWER than the advertised life. At this rate, the savings in power is being overshadowed by the increased cost of the bulbs. I have a few more left, but I’m not going to buy any more.

Seabecker on March 20, 2008 at 2:30 PM

I remember the good ol’ days when we were worried about pollution, and all kinds of nasty chemicals. Not any more!!!!! Now, as long as we aren’t putting CO2 into the atmo, almost anything goes.

Seabecker on March 20, 2008 at 2:40 PM

I still can’t believe nobody has addressed or acknowledged the fact that we have been in the presence of this exact same technology in Malls, offices, grocery stores, hospitals, government buildings, and garages for our entire lives!

What’s the big effin deal?

beefytee on March 20, 2008 at 2:43 PM

So are you saying that the mercury is in the bulb itself? That sounds rather strange to me, because I’ve never heard of the BULB having mercury, JUST the transformer. Perhaps we can get some clarification on this point?

wearyman on March 20, 2008 at 1:12 PM

Fluorescent lights require (1) a low-pressure gaseous medium to conduct the current and (2) a phosphorescent coating on the glass to produce and diffuse the light. The mercury is present in both liquid (to assure the gas is present) and gaseous (the conducting medium) form.

The “transformer” you refer to is really a “starter,” which is necessary to ignite the bulb and limit the current through it. The “starter,” (which may be electromagnetic, electronic, or a combination of both), is always a frequent source of failure in fluorescent bulbs, and can overheat and cause other problems. In industrial fluorescent lighting, you can replace the starter separately, but with the Chinese CFL bulbs, you get to throw the whole bulb away when the starter fails.

If you break a CFL you have a combination of solid, liquid, and gaseous poisons to contend with, and if the glass breaks your skin, you have to deal with the fact that you may have introduced these poisons into your bloodstream.

Wasteful? YES: CFL’s cost 7-20 times the comparable incandescent solution, and they don’t work at all in many fixtures. They inherently flicker, and will go out altogether if the local power factor strays too far from 1.0 (as it sometimes does in industrial areas or in your home when your air conditioner starts up). They are also more susceptible to irreversible damage from power spikes: especially if electronic starters are used (a single short-duration spike over 600V will kill electronic starters every time). The light they put out is almost always the wrong spectrum, which results in a requirement for more illumination (i.e. you must turn on more bulbs) in order to get adequate light.

And if you are so concerned about “the environment,” why aren’t you asking how many pounds of non-recyclable and/or toxic waste there will be from CFL vs the comparable amount of incandescent illumination?

landlines on March 20, 2008 at 2:47 PM

If you break a CFL you have a combination of solid, liquid, and gaseous poisons to contend with, and if the glass breaks your skin, you have to deal with the fact that you may have introduced these poisons into your bloodstream.

still, tell me how this is any different from the existing technology found all over the world.

The only difference I can see (if someone can show me great) is that the CFL’s have thicker glass that the industrial type.

beefytee on March 20, 2008 at 2:52 PM

replacing all of them with CFL lights saved us an average of about $50.00 each month

Really?

Lets do some math:
60 Watt lightbulb, vs. 15 Watt CFL (standard replacement).

The average cost of electricity in 2006 (the first number I could find) was 9.86¢/kWh. Maybe not perfect, but probably close.

Lets assume you use a light bulb 12 hours/day, in a 30 day month (just to get some numbers for one bulb). 12 * 30 = 360 Hours * 45 watts(saved) = 16,200 watt/hours, or 16.2 KWh… or it will save you (16.2 * 9.86 = ) $1.60 per month to switch that bulb. Now you’re saving $50/month. 50.00 / 1.6 = 31.25. So you have 30+ light bulbs in your house that run 12+ hours a day (or some variation on that theme).

To save $50 you use over (30 * 12) 360 (60-watt or equivalent) light bulb hours per day for lighting your home (by whatever formula for hours & light bulbs you have)?

Or, another way to get there, 15-16 light bulbs left on 24/7? Are you really using that much lighting?

I’m not going to call you wrong, maybe you’ve got a mansion, maybe you leave every light on 24/7, maybe you’ve got 4-6 lights per room… but your usage is well outside the average range I suspect.

gekkobear on March 20, 2008 at 2:57 PM

landlines on March 20, 2008 at 2:47 PM

Thank you for the information, I was entirely unaware of the toxins present inside the spiral tube of a CFL.

However, the last part of your comment is rather confusing. I thought I was quite clear that I bought them to save money on my electric bil, not to “save the environment”.

I have had reservations about the environmental benefits of CFL bulbs for some time, simply due to the fact that they MUST take more energy to manufacture simply to to their more complex design.

Now that I have a better understanding of the toxicity of the bulbs, I’m going to see if there is anywhere I can purchase any LED light bulbs in my area.

I still want to save money, so I’d rather not have to go back to old Incandescent bulbs again.

wearyman on March 20, 2008 at 3:03 PM

I’m not going to call you wrong, maybe you’ve got a mansion, maybe you leave every light on 24/7, maybe you’ve got 4-6 lights per room… but your usage is well outside the average range I suspect.

gekkobear on March 20, 2008 at 2:57 PM

There’s another possibility that people really don’t take into consideration, but I will say it definitely happened to me.

I got these light bulbs and suddenly I’m conscious of when they’re on and don’t need to be…so I friggin turn them off when I leave the room, or when I notice they’re on and no one is IN that room. Also, it made me more aware that my PS3 is sometimes left on even over night…not any more. Same with other entertainment components.

This light bulbs, if absolutely nothing else, made me become a more responsible and efficient consumer of energy.

This teamed up with using a product that by all arguments IS in fact more efficient, PLUS con-ed’s system and seeing my consumption drop…these things combined are most likely what netted my $40.00 savings.

Still, I’m happy with it, and the CFL’s were the catalyst.

beefytee on March 20, 2008 at 3:07 PM

gekkobear on March 20, 2008 at 2:57 PM

Methinks your calculations are wrong, or aren’t taking exorbitant NY State taxes into account.

All I can tell you is that in a 1200 SQ foot Cape Cod home, built in the 1950′s with up to date electric systems and Gas heat, after I went through and replaced all our incandescent bulbs with CFL’s our electric bills went down about $50.00 on average. This was DURING THE WINTER when we tend to use lights much more often.I didn’t notice as much change during the summer months.

If you are wondering how I noticed, I have a large filing system where I file all my paid bills and other important paperwork. It was easy as pie to go back a year or two and check and compare on a month-to-month basis. My bills went down an AVERAGE of roughly $50.00 after we swapped to CFL’s.

You can throw out all the fancy numbers you want, but my bills trump them as far as me and my wallet are concerned. ;)

wearyman on March 20, 2008 at 3:11 PM

The part that makes me cringe is the blather about how much less heat the CFLs generate. They’re actually calling this an advantage. That’s because they don’t think.

The annual cooling season is shorter than the annual heating season for the majority of Americans. Most of us run our furnace for more of the year than we run our air conditioning units; October – April for the furnace, June – September for the AC (obviously, it’s different if you live in Phoenix or Birmingham). Light bulbs actually produce a measurable amount of heat in the average home — not nearly as much as the refrigerator, but enough that architects sizing AC units and furnaces take them into account. If we replace incandescent bulbs with cooler bulbs, we’ll have to replace the btus by running the furnace, most of which burns fossil fuels — natural gas, fuel oil, and some is electrical. Net result: cooler bulbs = more furnace usage.

I’ve never seen an analysis of the new bulbs mention this.

(Unrelated to this topic, please visit my political blog, “Plumb Bob Blog: Squaring the Culture,” at http://www.plumbbobblog.com. Thanks.)

philwynk on March 20, 2008 at 3:55 PM

The truly galling thing about measures like the incandescent light ban is the arrogance evidenced by them. At the root of every such measure is some group of people who genuinely, in their heart of hearts, thinks “The only reason everybody doesn’t live the way I live is that they are too stupid to change the way I’ve changed.” They can’t wait for the market to replace the “inferior” product with the “superior” product; they have to force us all to change, for our own good.

The irony is that the market proves they’re wrong. If the “superior” way really were superior, it would not be necessary to force most people to change; they’d do it on their own. Invariably — without a single exception that I can think of — the market has chosen not to make the change because of perfectly valid reasons that consumers notice but “experts” don’t. Thus, every time an environmentalist move forces a change in practice not already underway by market forces — every time — a better practice is being replaced by a less effective one.

(Unrelated to this topic, please visit my political blog, “Plumb Bob Blog: Squaring the Culture,” at http://www.plumbbobblog.com. Thanks.)

philwynk on March 20, 2008 at 4:03 PM

Feedie here; irked as always. :-) Here are long and short articles on the CFL and its many problems. I use 3 of them in one kitchen fixture where changing bulbs is a nuisance. The color isn’t bad, but the fixture has a milky white glass diffuser. These bulbs look unpleasant just about everywhere else. Don’t care for them in the living room and there is something that is just wrong about them in porch lights.

Manufacturers had a role in pushing the incandescent ban — another sore point. Also the companies persistently cheat on the lumen output for an equivalent incandescent. Today’s business climate squeezes everything ’till it bleeds and low quality in the power electronics can have dire consequences. See the links above for some good illustrations. And when it’s cold, who hasn’t occasionally used a 100W bulb in a service light to protect pipes from freezing?

Thanks Bush; thanks Congressmen. If imbeciles could fly, the White House and Congress would be airports.

Feedie on March 20, 2008 at 4:47 PM

Ok, I see a lot of posts here about saving money but no real values of bucks saved. Can someone please give me a cost breakdown of just how much money they have saved by using CFL’s instead of incandescent light bulbs. No theoretical assumptions either. Please include the cost per KW hour that you pay for electricity seasonally averaged and the KW hours saved.

Oldnuke on March 20, 2008 at 5:00 PM

Well, whether they are good or bad doesn’t matter any more. Our Congress and the president have banned incandescent light bulbs which must be phased out by 2012 as part of the massive energy bill. And nobody seems to care except for a few libertarians. If you are like me and hate CFLs, which, by the way, also have been known to cause headaches and trigger epileptic seizures, you’d better start stocking up on incandescent bulbs. I wonder how many congressmen took a nice lobbyist trip and campaign contributions from manufacturers of CFLs? Our government has a tendency to pass regulations without looking at long term ramifications. Is this going to be like the MTBE gasoline fiasco in California? The government screws up everything they get involved with!!!

Special K on March 20, 2008 at 6:01 PM

Oh, heck yeah. That, and the low-flo shower heads.

JetBoy on March 19, 2008 at 9:06 PM

Low-flo? I don’t like the sound of that.

soundingboard on March 20, 2008 at 6:19 PM

The problem is that the non-compact fluorescent bulbs were big and long, and could not be tossed so easily into the garbage, leaving the garbagemen able to see and reject the burned-out bulbs, forcing people to dispose of them properly, more or less.

CFLs are no bigger than a standard bulb, and there’s no way anybody’s diving through garbage looking for them. One million times “Oh, it’s just one bulb, it’s too big a bother to dispose of it properly” equals one million improperly-disposed-of fluorescent bulbs.

Sekhmet on March 20, 2008 at 7:20 PM

If you are wondering how I noticed, I have a large filing system where I file all my paid bills and other important paperwork. It was easy as pie to go back a year or two and check and compare on a month-to-month basis.

I’m not saying your wrong, and the NE seaboard has a much higher KWh than the rest of the country. Looking over a 2003 chart (again, what I could find) at “http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/cost.html” NY looks awful.

I live in Colorado, used to Live in Kansas (8.14 and 7.71 cents/KWh, looks to be median numbers for that year). The Chart shows NY as 14.31 for the state. Beyond that, Cape Cod may very well be pricier than most of NY (so above average there), and I was in a lower cost area of Kansas I think…

I’d be curious to know what your KWh usage is (if that’s on the bills) but no biggie. Your location helps explain the discrepancies.

Where I live, I’ve lived by myself in apartments where my electric bill didn’t hit $50, and I had 3 roommates once in Kansas in a 4 bedroom duplex and I don’t think we ever cleared $150 for the electric bill (but expenses in Lawrence Kansas don’t exactly relate 1:1 to Cape Cod). :) And I think Lawrence is off Wolf Creek Power Plant from KCP&L, which is one of the few Nuclear plants running, so that could affect the cost too.

So a $50 savings (when mine now is $60-80, live alone, 2 bedroom condo) sounded iffy. But when you’re paying double or more for electricity, that changes things (both the usage calculation, and the savings).

I’d be curious to know what you pay per KWh today (which may be on your current bill). That would help give an idea of how that $50 savings would correlate elsewhere.

Again, though, no pressure. Knowing you’re in one of the worst areas for electric costs (California and NY seem to fight for the top of that list) answers the questions I had about your statement.

I’ll try to remember there are places where the simple cost of living is more than twice what I’ve known, and therefore people stating savings aren’t talking in “my dollars”… and I’ll avoid moving to Hawaii.

But yes, as lighting is generally 1/6th of electric usage, your bill must be staggering (to those of us in cheap electricity land).

Oh, HA, March 18th news story quote “The average cost of electricity is higher on Cape Cod than it is in any state in the continental United States. ”

http://www.capecodonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080318/NEWS/803180325

So yeah, you’re in the worst of the worst.

And, looking for another story (from Dec. last year)… “Climate and customer ownership of Colorado Springs Utilities combine to rank the typical Springs residential energy bill as fifth-lowest in
the nation, according to a recent study of 300 cities.”.

Sorry, the simple comparison I did in my head here wasn’t really comparable, worse than any state VS one of the low 5 cities nationwide. Yeah, that’s not going to relate well.

gekkobear on March 20, 2008 at 7:51 PM

FYI

gekkobear on March 20, 2008 at 7:51 PM

Wearyman’s use of Cape Cod refers to a type of house. The place Cape Cod is in Massachusetts

dentalque on March 20, 2008 at 8:34 PM

And all my eco-nut “friends” thought I was nuts to replace all my bulbs with LED bulbs.

opusrex on March 20, 2008 at 10:55 PM

Wearyman’s use of Cape Cod refers to a type of house. The place Cape Cod is in Massachusetts

I wondered, but honestly I have no clue. Either about North-East USA geography or about home buying/styles. I rent, and I’ve never been closer to NY than Chicago.

And the extra research did show that apparently I live in a below average cost area… My electric bill January (I don’t save them, but that one missed the trash) was $39.58 for electricity (2 bedroom condo, total 450 KWh for 33 days). I know I can’t save $50/month.

And switching over for $5/month? Hell, when I first looked into it, each bulb was around $5.

Sorry, I didn’t realize the extent of the cost of living sticker shock when I wrote that first post. Remind me not to move to New York without getting paid a hell of a lot more.

gekkobear on March 20, 2008 at 11:29 PM

When incandescent bulbs are outlawed, only the outlaws will have incandescent bulbs.

electric-rascal on March 21, 2008 at 4:49 AM

It comes as no shock to me that a left-wing “solution” only causes more problems downstream. Isn’t that the way with all their ideas? Got poor people? Easy, just start writing them checks every month. You say that will torpedo their family and sap their desire to move up and they’ll become dependent on those checks? You heartless fascist, you!

Kafir on March 21, 2008 at 8:32 AM

Where can you buy LED light bulbs? I thought they were hugely expensive, very bulky, and cast very little light. Is that true?

Outlander on March 21, 2008 at 9:19 AM

Want to know if these bulbs are dangerous? Take the ultimate test– TRY TO TAKE ONE ON AN AIRPLANE.

Bicyea on March 21, 2008 at 10:49 AM

There is the same amount of mercury in these bulbs as in a rectal thermometer. Let’s just stick them in our #$^^ and when it glows we have a fever.

Trying to dispose of them in the regulated manner is tooooooo costly that their value as an energy saver is well below the economic realities to make the claim they are cheaper over the long term.

Let me think. Before electric light there was gas/coal fired fixtures. Let’s take a step back and use gas/coal fired fixtures or candles to light up our lives.

No can do. That would increase our carbon foot print and it takes up oxygen to stay lit and we need to breath to stay alive.

Another foolish factor that has not been considered, is the fact that when we exhale (and we must or die) we are emitting Carbon Dioxide (green house gas and necessary for the plants to absorb in their process of emitting oxygen that we must inhale).

Life is a vicious circle of choices. But, I sense we can make the right choice on our own, and do not need the help of environmentalists that do not understand physics to tell us how to survive in the world today.

MSGTAS on March 21, 2008 at 10:51 AM

this thread is intersting. i do not know about you folks but i checked my electric bills. my average electric bill over the last 19 months is 64.79.

if i could save $50 a month by switching to cfl then it whould mean i could operate:

air conditioner
refridgarator
televisions
dish washer
clothes washer
computer and printer
stereo
clothes dryer even though its gas it still uses electricty
furnuce though gas still uses electricty
phones
vaccumm cleaner
garage opener
my wood working shop(hobby)
weed eater blower trimmer
sump pump
and others i have not listed

for 14.79 a month. I DO NOT THINK SO.

i truly do not know af any one spend $50 a month on lighting.

if you do please post.

TomLawler on March 21, 2008 at 3:21 PM

Want to know if these bulbs are dangerous? Take the ultimate test– TRY TO TAKE ONE ON AN AIRPLANE.

Bicyea on March 21, 2008 at 10:49 AM

Heeheheehee!!

Califemme on March 21, 2008 at 6:42 PM

For some real energy savings insulate your house with
cellulose instead of fiber glass. cellulose is made with 80% recycled paper/ 20% borax, and uses very little energy
to make. Energy savings of up to 50% (heating + cooling)
have been proven. This would have a bigger impact on the enviroment and be the best posable use for many newspapers
that are out there.

aceinstall on March 21, 2008 at 8:41 PM

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