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CFL Lightbulbs: Environmentally Friendly or a Safety Hazard?

By Melanie Ethridge on Jun 15, 2016

In recent years, governments around the world have been passing measures to replace incandescent light bulbs with more energy-efficient options. In 2007, the United States passed one such measure to phase out incandescent light bulbs that intended to see them be a thing of the past by the start of 2014.

On the surface, at least environmentally speaking, a focus on more energy efficient light bulbs seemed to be a positive move and the market was soon flooded with advertisements for more energy efficient options. The bulk of the attention was given to the CFL light bulb. Businesses began replacing old incandescents with the new CFLs, builders were putting them in new construction, and home owners were encouraged to make the switch.  But then questions began to arise:  Were these CFLs actually the environmentally friendly heroes they were being made out to be?

Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) are light bulbs available for use in your home that are an alternative to incandescent light bulbs and emit light differently. Unlike incandescent light bulbs that give light by sending electricity through a metal filament, CFLs send an electronic current through a tube containing argon and mercury. This powers up an ultraviolet light that is not visible until it comes in contact with the fluorescent coating, called phosphor, on the inner portion of the tube and emits the light.

What are the Benefits of CFLs?

Energy efficiency is, inarguably, the greatest benefit of using CFLs. In fact, CFLs are said to be 50-80% more efficient than traditional light bulbs. CFL manufacturers claim that using CFL light bulbs will result in a half-ton reduction of CO2 from the atmosphere over the life of just one bulb.

By reducing energy demand, CFLs consequently reduce the harmful emissions released into the atmosphere during energy production. In the United States, most electricity is produced through the burning of coal which releases all sorts of toxins, including mercury, into the atmosphere. Because CFL bulbs require less energy, this negative environmental impact is lessened.

Compact fluorescent lighting can save its users money in the long run. While CFLs cost more than traditional incandescent light bulbs up front, they last significantly longer and thus they don’t have to be replaced as often.

CFLs are also cooler—literally. They don’t burn as hot as other lighting options so you won’t burn your hand if you happen to touch one that’s been on. And, you can use them in just about any lighting fixture. There are now even some models that work with dimmer switches.

What are the Disadvantages of CFLs?

If you are looking at dollars and cents in the short term, CFLs are more expensive than traditional bulbs at the immediate point of purchase.

Some CFL users complain that they take a long time to turn on and they produce an “unattractive” light. Beyond simple aesthetic considerations, poor light quality has been shown to affect certain illnesses, mood, and work productivity — and some speculate that light quality affects the behavior of children as well.

Some CFLs produce high levels of what’s called radio frequency radiation. Some studies show that this “dirty electricity” can be harmful to human health. It’s a little known fact that millions of individuals suffer from hypersensitivity to this type of energy. Exposure can result in a variety of ailments from headaches to fatigue.

Another disadvantage of CFLs is that they contain mercury. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and a widely-recognized safety hazard. In extreme cases. elemental mercury has been shown to cause detrimental environmental and health effects including:

  • Polluting the air and water
  • Kidney issues
  • Neurological effects
  • Respiratory failure
  • Death

The mercury in CFL lightbulbs poses no risk to you if it is safely tucked away in the bulb, but if the bulb breaks, your home (family, children, and pets) are exposed to this neurotoxin. And most Americans are either unaware of the danger this presents or are unsure of how to deal with such a break.

In a survey recently conducted by Growth Advance, 68% of the respondents who have had a CFL break in their home were unaware that special clean-up methods were required to prevent mercury exposure.  Fifty percent of respondents stated that when the bulb broke, they cleaned it up with a vacuum. This is especially dangerous as, according to the EPA website (which states in large, bold, all-caps letters: “DO NOT VACUUM” in reference to broken CFLs) vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor throughout the home.

This leads to another disadvantage. Throwing these bulbs in your regular garbage container is not an option. They need to be recycled and disposed of properly – typically by a recycling center that deals in hazardous materials. Most consumers will not take the extra step to do this which will result in much of this mercury ending up in our landfills, seeping into our groundwater, and then eventually back into our food chain.

The CFL Catch-22

The pros and cons of CFL lightbulbs leads to an interesting decision point for you and your family. On the one hand, reducing your energy consumption is a great benefit to the environment. But if you don’t dispose of the CFL bulbs correctly, then it negates whatever positive environmental impact you’ve just created. If you’re starting to question the positive marketing around CFLs, you’re not alone. In our survey, 67% of respondents indicated that they believe CFLs are not in fact good for the environment, while only 22% believe that they are good for the environment and 11 % are unsure. Considering that most people spend more time in their homes than anywhere else — and that you want to ensure the well-being of your family and pets — it’s important to weigh the costs and benefits of CFLs for yourself, consider the alternatives, and consciously choose what is best for you, your family and the environment.

CFL Alternatives

If you’re looking for an alternative to both CFLs and traditional incandescent lightbulbs, you might follow the feedback from our readers and consider LEDs as a viable option. One survey respondent stated, “We are gradually switching to LED lights. They last a lot longer, use less electricity, and don’t contain mercury.” Another respondent said that they prefer LED bulbs because they are “low energy, use non-toxic materials, and their long service life means less waste.”

Because of the abundance of responses pointing to LED light bulbs as an environmentally friendly alternative to CFLs, we decided to take a closer look ourselves. What we found was pretty impressive.

LED light bulbs are shown to have an extremely long lifespan (longer even than that of CFLs), which would reduce the amount of waste generated in creating them. In fact, one manufacturer claims that one LED lightbulb has the lifespan of 25 incandescent bulbs. LEDs are 80-90% more efficient than incandescent bulbs. For example, a traditional 60-watt incandescent bulb consumes about 525 kWh of electricity in a year whereas a LED light bulb uses around 65 kWh. We also learned that LEDs are 100% recyclable and contain no mercury or toxic chemicals.

The downside to LEDs? They cost a bit more up front, though now you can find options that are good replacements for your 60-Watt incandescents for between $10-$20.


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