Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: Proceed with Caution
By Peter Wilson
- Many people, however, don't like curlicue light bulbs, and not because these people are uninformed, shortsighted, or on the payroll of Big Carbon. The list of objections is long, but here are a few:
- CFL manufacturers claim that a 13-watt CFL emits the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent, but it doesn't seem to work that way in the real world. I've been in CFL-lit hotel rooms where I need a flashlight to read my dog-eared copy of The Road to Serfdom.
- Warm-up time: it takes up to 5 minutes for a CFL to reach full strength, which may be related to the point above (why CFLs seem less bright). My friend has installed them in a hallway where illumination is needed only for the thirty seconds it takes to navigate the staircase. Not ideal when Grandma visits and can't see the skateboard on the stairs.
- Few CFLs last for their advertised lifetimes of five years or more. Many people report replacing them after one year, making those return on investment numbers a bit less rosy. Using them in ceiling fixtures, on dimmers or timers, and for less than fifteen minutes per use reduce their life.
- CFLs contain mercury and should be returned to a hazardous waste center for disposal. Studies assume a 25% recycling rate, with the rest going into landfills. (The Westinghouse website recommends recycling only when disposing of "a large quantity" of fluorescent tubes and doesn't mention how to dispose of their CFLs.) According to a 2008 Yale study, burning coal to supply electricity to incandescent bulbs emits more mercury per bulb than a CFL contains, but regions that rely on cleaner fuels like natural gas experience greater mercury contamination with the introduction of CFLs. Why would environmentalists advocate to bring a toxic product into every home?
- Cleaning up a broken CFL doesn't require a haz-mat team, but you have to take significant precautions to avoid mercury contamination of living areas.
- Manufacturing CFLs is labor-intensive. No CFLs are made with expensive U.S. labor; most are made in China, where hundreds of factory workers in CFL plants have been hospitalized for mercury poisoning. The last major light bulb factory in the U.S., a GE plant in Winchester, VA, closed earlier this month.
- CFLs require six times as much energy to manufacture as incandescent bulbs, not to mention -- if you're concerned about such things -- the carbon footprint of shipping them from China.
- CFLs appear to cause migraines and epileptic seizures in a small number of people. Other health risks are being studied.
- CFLs work poorly in cold temperatures -- as a wintertime front porch light, for example. In cold climates, the heat of incandescent bulbs is a useful -- if inefficient -- byproduct.
- CFLs degrade the quality of the electric current (so-called "dirty electricity" with uneven sine waves) on a circuit into which they are plugged, causing problems for other electronic devices and possible health hazards to humans.