Posted by: The Paris Apartment | September 5, 2011

The Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb Debacle

photo via

I was recently asked by a Houston energy company to write about my thoughts on the CFL bulbs, so here goes in a nutshell:

The entree of CFLs or Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs into modern culture was almost imperceptible. Globally, we’ve come to accept the curly bulbs as a ‘Green’ product.  Heck, they’re practically a symbol of the cause.

But millions of us are bringing these bulbs into our homes without knowing anything about them, especially the dangers.

I know because I was one of the people who blindly accepted the bulbs as ecological. Never thought twice about them.

It wasn’t until one day when my mother was very upset about the CFL bulbs that they ever came into question. Her agitation stemmed from the upcoming ban on traditional bulbs. It seemed so absurd that I didn’t believe her. Surely we’ll always have a choice. Who would ban one of the simplest and most effective inventions of all time? Just don’t buy them if you don’t like them.

But she said no, it was a BAN, as in illegal to have a regular light bulb after 2012.

I tried to imagine a fluorescent world and the image struck me cold.

Yet my consciousness was dug in. The bulbs had to be good for the environment if government and Green leaders were touting them.

When she told me they contained Mercury, I said, well, it couldn’t be that much. Surely someone in power was making sure we’re safe.

Looking back, I see that I didn’t want to believe that CFL bulbs were anything but an improvement and advancement.

The fact that I had such a strong opinion on a subject I knew nothing about prompted me to go home that day and look into the subject.

What I discovered was astounding and surreal. It unfolded in front of me like a frightening movie with all the bells and whistles of corporate greed, wagging the dog and Big Brother.

There was so much information I felt the need to channel my findings and try to make sense of it, so I started a blog.

www.stopping at the

First I read about light bulb factories in the US. Just after the stimulus was given out, all of the US light bulb plants were shut down one by one from Ohio to Georgia.  All bulbs will now be made in China.

I found articles about Asian workers getting Mercury poisoning from production lines. Information on new Mercury mines being built to keep up with production of the hundreds of millions of bulbs being mandated. Most shocking was that the new mines are in third world and undeveloped countries that have yet to be exploited. And the companies and banks behind the bulbs, the mines and the ban were partners.

It seems that big business has a goal to put a CFL bulb in every socket, in every country, in every house, in every room. It would be a brilliant, capitalist move if not for the neglect to see it through from creation to disposal.

I discovered that world’s largest polluter  is responsible for the lobbying, sale and distribution of the bulbs. Their trails of devastation are known as Superfund sites; places that have been contaminated and never cleaned up.

The interest with what happens to the bulbs once they’ve been sold is not a concern.

There’s so much support for the bulbs, debates about the benefits, lifespan, theories that less coal will be used and all sorts of technical data trying to show the upside.

But despite that these bulbs must be transported across an ocean, will be our only legal option, packed in plastic and cost more than regular bulbs to make and purchase, there’s the issue of clean up and disposal.

According to the EPA’s website, for every bulb disposed of improperly in a landfill, there will be 6,000 gallons of groundwater pollution. Walmart alone has sold hundreds of millions of them already, and most consumers do not know how to handle a dead or broken bulb. The fact is that burned out CFL bulbs are considered Toxic Hazardous Waste.

But most people do not know how to dispose of them, whether in cosmopolitan cities or a rural town. Disposal instructions on the package simply say, ‘Dispose of in accordance with local laws’.

The EPA also states that if a CFL breaks indoors, you must evacuate children and pets and open windows and doors for at least 15 minutes, whatever the weather. The Mercury vapors from the break can cause neurological damage to those in its presence, whether adult or an unborn child.

If a bulb breaks on the carpet, said carpet must be cut out where the bulb broke. A vacuum cannot be used as it spreads the Mercury vapors further.

Researching this has uncovered information on everything from CFLs triggering epileptic seizures to migraines.

It’s hard to believe the world would accept these bombs into our homes with pure abandon.

Having a bulb in your car to drive it to the toxic waste dump can be harrowing so

the EPA suggests that to carry it, you use two plastic bags, duct tape, rubber gloves and put it in a glass jar. Not exactly green.

Most communities don’t have local Toxic Waste Dumps in place. Home Depot and Ikea will take back some bulbs if they’re unbroken. If they get tossed into the recycling bin at home they have the potential to break and you put your recycling fellows at risk. What if your town doesn’t have one of these stores? Where will the bulbs go?

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Some countries have completely adopted the bulbs such as Australia, Canada and England. They’ve gone as far as to have their neighbors call the police if they find an incandescent in a home.

The fact is that there is nothing wrong with incandescents. In fact, they’re extremely efficient and we have the technology to make them so they don’t burn out at all.

With all the talk of CFLs lasting longer and only needing to be replaced every year or so, I was pleasantly surprised to discover what I believe is the lynch pin in the equation.

Turns out that Thomas Edison’s first bulbhas been lit for over 100 years and still burning in California. What this means is that we have the technology to make bulbs that don’t burn out at all Yet as a society we’re told to consume these new bulbs even though from creation to disposal, there negatives outweigh any savings on coal burning.

The government is going to force us to use a product that is dangerous and actually less efficient.

Regular bulbs are easy to clean up (especially with children), and are simple and inexpensive to make. Not to mention they can warm up a room and are dimmable. Why would we give up that kind of technology or not explore it further?

A bright spot is that the debate is surging in America and states like Texas and South Carolina have decided to ban the ban. Unfortunately it’s turning into a political issue.

But with discussion and open minds, we can only hope the people of the world will soon see the light.



  1. I agree that CFLs and that the government should not import everything but there are disadvantages to incandescent bulbs as well. The filament is a tungsten wire because it malleable and ductile. If current levels of tungsten use continue, it is predicted that reserves will run out within the next century. Also the bulb that has been burning in Livermore, California for so long was not his first bulb, which burned out in about 4 hours, but can be considered as evidence of planned obsolescence in today’s bulbs.

  2. What the California bulb shows is that bulbs can last decades. Right now they’re touting the CFLS to last a few months or so and then have to be replaced anyway.
    WE HAVE the technology to create bulbs that last 50+ years but GE and other companies want to keep us consuming. It’s a phenomenon called ‘Planned Obsolescence’.

  3. RE planned obsolescence,
    The major Light Bulb manufacturers (GE, Philips, Osram…) have been at it for years
    – that is why standard life definition is 1000 hours

    Regular incandescents are unprofitable,
    compared to CFLs and LEDs
    That is why the major manufacturers have pushed for and welcomed the ban: (as they admit, with references) – a ban which thereby also stops any upstarts fthat might want to keep offering cheap incandescent alternatives

    It is a “Ban”:
    All known touted “lookalike” halogen-type incandescent replacements will be banned before 2020 too according to the 2007 EISA energy usage regulation as quoted and referenced
    – and of course have light quality etc differences anyway, along with a much higher price tag for marginal savings, which is why they are not popular

  4. test

  5. Ive been screaming about this for years, even got cut off on a call in talk show locally when i slipped in that it is not being voiced which is not responsible on how to dispose properly cause they have mercury a neuro toxin in them. there are billboards and glossy ads from eon and commercials with ads from baron davis a sports star to tinkerbell from disney telling us to use the product with no mention of proper disposal, with just a sentence on the box tellin US to dispose of as per local state and federal law in tiny print.
    where are the disposal sites! Your local news wont cover this issue its taboo!

  6. I can see we are flying here by the seat of our pants. None of the three major manufacturers ( G.E., Phillips, And Sylvania) have made incandescent bulbs in the US for many, many years. There have not been a bulb manufacturer in Ohio to Georgia for many moons – more folk lore! For a time they made them in eastern europe than when labor got higher there, they moved to China for at least the last decade. So when I see someone here rant about jobs lost, they have listening to long to the Fox Entertainment Channel. Our problem is that we have outsource our manufactuering jobs throughout the world and that started in the Regan / Bush era with one major presidiental contender still promoting that song.

    As for life, yes you can build anything to last longer BUT a typical incandescent uses only 10% of it’s energy for light and the other 90% is pure heat. So yes we end up using a lot more juice and run our A/C units longer using even more juice.

    Now the mercury question, more folk lore, yest there is a pin point amount in each lamp to be used as a starter like flint that actually dissolves over time in a gasous state. Now these lamps last 7-8 times more than a typical incandescent which means we have to run the utility plant less – which power plants in fact creates more hazardous mercury from the stacks everyday into your lungs.

    So forget what the Fox Network would like you to believe or some internet mis-informed person who would like America to go back to gas lamps or such. This is the 21st century and we have to move on with technology that sometimes put fear into us who dislike change. But that is life, so you either go with the flow or get left behind.

    • ikswodnawel

      Certainly consumers can save on some most commonly used bulbs,
      but energy savings are not the only reason for choosing a bulb you want to use,
      incandescents have many light quality etc advantages compared to CFLs/LEDs (and halogen replacements will disappear on EISA phase 2 standard)

      Besides, savings for society are only c 1% grid use as referenced, and hardly that, given coal plant night use that effectively sees the same coal burned regardless of light bulb use,, for operational reasons

      The continually rehashed “coal plant mercury argument” does not hold up either, as per EPA 90% emission reduction by 2016 announced end 2011 by admin Lisa Jackson – you wont find even EPA admin pursuing your argument any more, whatever about old diagrams floating around.
      It never was true anyway, see mercury section of the mentioned Ceolas site above.

      “Progress” is not dependent on banning what went before
      .(and it is effectively a “ban” as per previous comment):
      Progress is welcomed – not feared.
      Progress brings more choice and more advantages, a progress helped – not hindered – by allowing competition against that which already exists.

      Yes Fox news can be dumb.
      But, with respect, so is the notion of “wanting to go back to gas lamps”..
      All lighting has advantages,
      Removing choice by energy standards is wrong and unjustified.

      • In fact the “incandescent bulb” was never killed or banned – another one of those Michele Bachmann myths. In fact the law called for increasing the efficiency 30 % and the new incandescent will give the same light output but use only 72 watts instead of 100W and the same goes for the old fashion 75W in 2013 and 60W & 40W in 2014. So there is still hope for antique lamps and hoop skirts!

        As for lighting, last time I looked we used lighting in the daytime too! And coal plants provide 52% of the nations power. But in certain parts of the US there are still oil fired plant generation too. So mercury is still out there blowing across america!

        As for light qualities, both the compact and LED lamps have temperature options one can buy in the store to match that homey yellowish color if one sees fit.

        So the focus is efficiency, GE, Sylvania and Phillips are going to produce these “more efficient” bulbs. The technology is there and will be there as we advance into the 21st century.

        And for those who want to romance into the past, you can also hoard enough to last a lifetime. Yes, some of us still tear at the passing of the Stanley Steamer, wood kitchen stoves and candy for a penny.

      • All incandescents for ordinary use including touted 2012 72W replacement halogens you mention will in coming years be banned on EISA 2007 Energy act phase 2 = 45 lumen per Watt end regulation, as the Energy Information Administration (EIA) themselves admit.
        The replacement Halogens are typically 20-25 lumen per Watt

        If you read the previous link, the issue is answered: point 1
        Also see the further links from it.
        So, for those reasons, while it is defined as a standard, it is effectively a ban.

        As for CFLs and LEDs,
        their output spectra are uneven giving lower color rendition indexes.- the “warm” light is irrelevant in that regard, and dimming them makes the light even harsher.
        Nevertheless one can be happy using them for certain applications,
        just like incandescents are better for other ones..
        Using the former does not justify banning – or “phasing out'” – the latter.

      • I guess we will have to agree to disagree for the legislation is very specific about the 30% improvement and GE, Phillps and Sylvania would not be manning up to create a product to be “banned in a few years. I would sincerely suggest you read the actual legislation.

        Also about the Halogen, perhaps the oldie but goodie but the newer IR (infer-red) Halogen passed the test and lasts many years longer.

        Your information on the light spectrum may be a few years behind the times. For in the last 18 months the majors now have equal to the old incandescents with CFLs and LED by nature can be customized and so this month the Smithsonian has finish extensive field test on fading and light quality in so they will start this fall with specific LED PAR lamps.

        So breath deep, relax and know that all these nuances are disappearing like mist in the early morning air.

      • Sure ikswodnavel,
        always appreciate seeing the opposite view.
        Thanks also for the info on Smithsonian LED PAR lamps – will be interesting to see what they chose and why….

        As said, I am all for variety (including using a couple each of CFL/LED type),
        I simply believe progress is best achieved by market place competition, rather than government decision, and indeed that ultimately competition saves more energy too, in that it ensures that the best and most desired energy saving products are brought to market, at competitive prices against cheap alternatives
        (and can be properly marketed too… like energizer/duracell bunny commercials, washing up liquids etc .”expensive to buy but cheap in the long run”, without running to the regulators lobbying for bans a la Philips/GE/Osram)

      • FYI – On LEDs, last year CREE (U.S. major LED manufactuer) created a new standard of 152 lumens-per-watt concept LED bulb and this year has now in the marketplace 170 LPW LED bulb. So technology will very rapidly make great strides in the next 18-months beyond even what I thought could happen.

        As for cheap initial cost for lighting products. One has to really consider life-cycle analysis of a energy consuming product (initial cost + energy cost + maintenance cost). For sometimes we are “penny wise and pound foolish”.

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