The conservative media campaign in support of House GOP efforts to overturn light bulb efficiency standards signed into law by President Bush centers on two primary claims: 1) That we will all be forced to use compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) when the standards take effect and 2) That CFLs are terrible.
It is simply not the case that consumers will have to use CFLs, contrary to what conservative media outlets claimed in at least 40 instances over the past seven months. Moreover, these media outlets have used false and misleading attacks to demonize CFLs, which can save households more than $57 per bulb, according to Consumer Reports.
MYTH: CFL Bulbs Pose Serious Health Risk
Product Safety Group: "If Disposed Of Properly, Mercury In CFLs Shouldn't Be A Safety Hazard." According to a report on CFLs and mercury from the product safety certification organization Underwriters Laboratories:
CFLs contain a small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing - approximately 5 milligrams - a hundred times less mercury than found in a single old-style glass thermometer. No mercury is released when the lamps are intact or in use and if disposed of properly, mercury in CFLs shouldn't be a safety hazard. [Underwriters Laboratories, accessed 3/22/11]
Lawrence Berkeley Lab Researchers: Breaking A CFL Comparable To Eating Tuna. According to Yahoo! News, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found that mercury exposure from broken CFLs is comparable to eating tuna:
But, just how dangerous is a broken bulb? Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory set out to answer that question. They compared how much exposure you'd get from breathing in the amount of mercury released from a broken CFL bulb to how much mercury you'd take in from eating Albacore tuna.
If you do a common sense job of cleaning up (open the windows, clean up, and remove the debris), then your mercury exposure would be the equivalent of taking a tiny nibble of tuna, according to Francis Rubinstein, a staff scientist at Berkeley Lab. What if you did the worst job possible, say closed all the doors and smashed the bulb with a hammer? It's still no big deal, says Rubinstein, who points out that it would be the equivalent of eating one can of tuna. [Yahoo! News, 5/7/09]
Energy Star: Mercury In CFLs Is Dwarfed By Mercury Emissions From Coal-Fired Power Plants. From Energy Star, a program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy:
EPA estimates the U.S. is responsible for the release of 103 metric tons of mercury emissions each year. More than half of these emissions come from coal-fired electrical power. Mercury released into the air is the main way that mercury gets into water and bio-accumulates in fish. (Eating fish contaminated with mercury is the main way for humans to be exposed.)
CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing - an average of 4 milligrams. Because of this, EPA recommends that consumers take advantage of available local recycling options for CFLs. But if the CFL is not recycled and it ends up in a landfill, EPA estimates that about 11% of the mercury in the CFL is released into air or water, assuming the light bulb is broken. This is because most mercury vapor inside fluorescent light bulbs becomes bound to the inside of the light bulb. Therefore, if all 270 million CFLs sold in 2009 were sent to a landfill (versus recycled, as a worst case) - they would add only 0.12 metric tons, or 0.12%, to U.S. mercury emissions caused by humans. [Energy Star, November 2010]
Consumer Advocates: "CFLs Save Between 2 And 10 Times More Mercury From The Environment Than Is Used In The Bulb." From a March 9 letter to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee from Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports), National Consumers League, Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen and the National Consumer Law Center:
Improving safety throughout the lifecycle of a product is also very important, and Congress should develop a comprehensive recycling program for light bulbs, particularly CFLs, in order to recapture mercury or other possible toxics used in new light bulbs and prevent them from contaminating landfills. Recycling programs may also be required for LEDs as we learn more about the toxic materials present. However, it is important to note that CFLs save between 2 and 10 times more mercury from the environment than is used in the bulb because their efficiency avoids mercury pollution that would otherwise be emitted from coal-fired power plants. [Senate Hearing 112-10, 3/10/11]
[Search Earth911.com to find a CFL recycling center in your area]
There Is No Research Indicating That CFLs Cause Headaches. From the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:
The vast majority of CFL users, both in households and in commercial buildings, report no issues regarding CFL usage, including headaches. There are some anecdotal reports, however, and, although there is yet no research to directly explain any plausible causative mechanism, it may be possible that some people are susceptible to such headache effects just as some people claim to be annoyed by normal fluorescent lighting. However, the overwhelming numbers of people that use CFLs report no such negative effects. [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 4/28/09]
MYTH: Light From CFLs Is Blue And Harsh
Consumer Reports: "Many [CFLs] Now Light Like Ordinary Bulbs." From an August 2009 Consumer Reports article:
Myth: CFLs produce a harsh blue light.
Reality: Many now light like ordinary bulbs. Those with a 2,700 to 3,000 Kelvin (K) number have a warmer, yellower color; 3,500 K to 6,500 K bulbs emit a bluer or whiter light. Energy Star CFLs must include the Kelvin number on the package as of December. Look for CFLs labeled "soft" or "warm" white for light like an incandescent's, and choose "bright white," "natural," or "daylight" for whiter light. [Consumer Reports, August 2009]
The following photo, taken at an Ace Hardware store in Washington, DC, displays the range of color temperature available from CFL bulbs:
Popular Mechanics Test: CFLs Scored Higher Than Incandescent Bulb On "Overall Quality Of The Light." From Popular Mechanics in May 2007:
Popular Mechanics designed a test pitting seven common CFLs against a 75-watt incandescent bulb. To gather objective data, we used a Konica Minolta CL-200 chroma meter to measure color temperature and brightness, and a Watts up? Pro ammeter to track power consumption. Our subjective data came from a double-blind test with three PM staffers and Jesse Smith, a lighting expert from Parsons The New School for Design, in Manhattan. We put our participants in a color-neutral room and asked them to examine colorful objects, faces and reading material, then rate the bulbs' performance.
The results surprised us. Even though the incandescent bulb measured slightly brighter than the equivalent CFLs, our subjects didn't see any dramatic difference in brightness. And here was the real shocker: When it came to the overall quality of the light, all the CFLs scored higher than our incandescent control bulb. [Popular Mechanics, 5/1/07]
USA TODAY/Gallup Poll: 84 Percent Of Americans Are "Satisfied" Or "Very Satisfied" With Alternatives To Incandescents. USA Today reported in February: "Nearly three of four U.S. adults, or 71%, say they have replaced standard light bulbs in their home over the past few years with compact fluorescent lamps or LEDs (light emitting diodes) and 84% say they are 'very satisfied' or 'satisfied' with the alternatives, according to the survey of 1,016 U.S. adults taken Feb. 15-16." [USA Today, 2/18/11]