by Edmund Contoski
[SPPI Note: An extensive examination of the mercury scare can be found on the SPPI home website here: http://scienceandpublicpolicy.org/mercury/ ]
A compact fluorescent light (CFL) on the ceiling burst and started a fire in a home in Hornell, N.Y. December 23, 2010. “Those are the lights everybody’s been telling us to use,” said Joe Gerych, Steuben County Fire Inspector. “It blew up like a bomb. It spattered all over.” Fire Chief Mike Robbins said the blaze destroyed the room where the fire started and everything in it, and the rest of the house suffered smoke and water damage. The Arkport Village Fire Department as well as the North Hornell Fire Department required about 15 minutes to put out the fire. Link
“Bulb explodes without warning,” reported NBCactionnews.com, May 21, 2010.
“Tom and Nancy Heim were watching TV recently, when Tom decided to turn on the floor lamp next to his recliner chair. ‘I heard this loud pop…I saw what I thought was smoke, coming out of the top of the floor lamp,’ says Tom. Nancy suddenly found glass in her lap. She says, ‘I did not see it. I just heard it, and I noticed I had glass on me.’” Link
On February 23, 2011, TV NewsChannel 5 in Tennessee covered “a newly-released investigators’ report that blames a February 12 fatal fire in Gallatin on one of those CFL bulbs.” Ben Rose, an attorney for the rehabilitative facility in which Douglas Johnson, 45, perished, said, “This result is consistent with our own private investigation. …We have heard reports of similar fires being initiated by CFLs across the country.“ Link
Here are some examples from across the country:
“GE Helical 13 Watt light bulb. After only 6 months of use. This bulb started making funny noises and flickering… Finally, exploded on my kitchen table.” — Charles of South Webster, OH January 30, 2010. Link
“My GE 20W Helical bulb in my 1/2 bathroom caught on fire on 5/3/10. The bulb snapped and glowed very brightly then caught on fire….The bulb was suppose to last 5 years but it was only about a year or so old. I tried replacing it with a GE 26W bulb and the same thing happened immediately.” — Chantelle of Danville, PA May 15, 2010 Link
“My 80 year old mother turned on her reading lamp and the bulb exploded and the lamp shade caught fire. She unpluged the lamp from the wall and the fire went out thank God.” — M. of Lahaina, HI March 30, 2010 Link
“I turned on an overhead bathroom light bulb and heard a pop and it exploded falling into the bathroom sink. Nearly all of he flying glass went straight down so little damage was done; however, I was very thankful it did not get in my eyes.” — Patricia of Sammamish, WA October 20, 2010 Link
“We purchased a 3-way light bulb this past year. [Special 3-way CFLs are made but cost more.] Last night the bulb started a fire in the lamp….Had we not been there our house might have burned down.” — Tina of Redding, CT July 10, 2010 Link
“I had a desk lamp CFL burn up right in front of me. Switched it on and tiny sparks were emanating like a Van de Graaff generator. Quickly switched it off; the plastic around the ballast was cracked and smoking” — Nisshin, November 30, 2008 Link
October 5, 2010 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported: “Trisonic Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs Recalled Due to Fire Hazard” because of four incidents. It’s official notice states: “Hazard: light bulb can overheat and catch fire.” Link
Concerns about the toxic mercury in CFLs are downplayed by the bulbs’ advocates, but they shouldn’t be. According to EPA and other sources, the safe limit is 300 nanograms per cubic meter. When a broken CFL was reported in Maine, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection did the most extensive testing in the nation to evaluate the health risk. Its 160-page report is shocking:
Mercury concentration in the study room air often exceeds the…300 nanograms per cubic meter (ng/m3) for some period of time, with short excursions over 25,000 ng/m3, sometimes over 50,000 ng/m3. Link
The Maine report states that although following its recommended procedure for home cleanup
produces visibly clean flooring surfaces for both wood and carpets, all types of flooring surfaces tested can retain mercury sources even when visibly clean. Flooring surfaces, once visibly clean, can emit mercury immediately at the source that can be greater than 50,000 ng/m3[.]
The recommended cleanup procedures are onerous, inconvenient, time consuming and must be followed exactly to avoid exacerbating the health risk and incurring financial expense. For example, EPA Link recommends:
Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury… The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure.” You will also be looking at the cost of a new vacuum cleaner, because the Maine DEP research found it “difficult to impossible” to decontaminate a vacuum even with the advantage of sophisticated instruments the homeowner doesn’t have.
Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.
Never pour mercury down a drain. It may lodge in the plumbing and cause future problems during plumbing repairs…or cause pollution of the septic tank or sewage treatment plant.
Never wash clothing or other items that have come in direct contact with mercury in a washing machine, because mercury may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.
On December 2, 2010, Germany’s Federal Environment Agency (UBA) reported mercury levels from broken CFLs twenty times higher than regulations allow in the surrounding air for up to five hours after breakage. Link Based on a new method to measure mercury from broken CFLs, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection reports that only one-third of the mercury release occurs during the first 8 hours after breakage. During the following two-week period, 17% to 40 percent of the mercury is released into the air. Link According to the Maine study, dangerous levels of mercury can remain in the air for days, weeks, or in at least one case, months.
Utility companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize consumer purchases of CFLs, but the benefits are “less than expected,” according to the Wall Street Journal. One reason is that the bulbs are burning out faster than expected. When Pacific Gas & Electric began the program, “it figured the useful life of each bulb would be 9.4 years. Now, with experience, it has cut its estimate to 6.3 years, which limits the energy savings.” PG&E had overstated bulb life by 49 percent! As a result of this and other factors, the energy savings were a whopping 73 percent less than the 1.7 billion kilowatt hours projected by PG&E. Link
Cost comparisons between CFLs and incandescents are misleading for reasons beside CFL’s falling far short of their advertised bulb life and energy savings. In California, for example, the average cost of CFLs subsidized by the utility companies is $1.30 compared to $4 for unsubsidized bulbs. But that cost comparison doesn’t include the fact the utility companies use ratepayer funds to subsidize the bulbs. The state also subsidizes the bulbs with rewards and incentives to the utilities. PG&E collected $104 million of this money. So the taxpayers as well as the ratepayers are paying in ways that aren’t included in the claims about how much money is saved with CFLs. Link
CFLs often don’t fit existing light fixtures, such as small-base lamps, candelabras, and chandeliers, which will have to be replaced. But the costs of replacements are not included in the calculations that CFLs will save money. Say goodbye to those candelabras — even the expensive ones — as well as the aesthetic satisfaction they may give. That counts for zero in the government’s calculations.
When a CFL is switched on, it provides as little as half of its rated output and can take up to three minutes to reach efficient operation, though the observer will not notice the difference. So all those short on-and-off periods include operating the bulbs at far less than the efficiency claimed for them, and they shorten bulb life, too. A study by H. Sterling Burnett, Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and co-author Amanda Berg concludes:
Applications in which lighting is used only briefly (such as closets, bathrooms, motion detectors and so forth) will cause CFL bulbs to burn out as quickly as regular incandescent bulbs. Link
The U.S. Department of Energy found that CFLs often grow dimmer over time. It found that after only 40 percent of their rated service life, one-fourth of CFLs no longer produced the full amount of light. In tests conducted by the London Times, 11-watt CFLs produced only 58% of the light of an equivalent 60-watt incandescent — even after a 10-minute warm-up to allow the CFLs to reach maximum output. Link So the consumer gets less light than he expected, and the energy efficiency drops, too. And the cost estimates of the savings from CFLs are overstated because the customer is shortchanged on the amount of illumination he is paying for.
CFLs also will not operate at low temperatures, making them unsuitable for outdoor applications. Most say so right on the packaging. Safety experts say outdoor lighting is one of the most effective steps a person can take for home or business security, and motion detector lights have grown increasingly popular. So legislating incandescents out of existence will decrease safety. The same will be true of the disappearance of timers, which many people use to turn lights on and off when they are away, giving the appearance of someone being home and thereby discouraging break-ins. And the cost of throwing out timers and dimmers is not included in the costs of CFLs, nor is the cost of buying the more expensive CFLs specially made for those purposes, when they are available. The same is true for ceiling fans and garage door openers, where ordinary CFLs cannot be used because of vibration, and special CFLs for this purpose are far more expensive.
On May 15, 2007 Michael Scott, a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter, wrote that General Electric announced “by 2010 it will offer incandescent bulbs twice as efficient as those sold today and four times as efficient by 2012.“ Link The first part has already proven true since 2,000-hour rated bulbs appeared on the market in 2010. As a result, the claims that CFL bulbs last “x” number of times longer than incandescents should have reduced the “x” by half. Instead, we continue to hear repetition of the comparisons made years ago of CFLs to 1,000-hour incandescents (or even 750-hour ones of a few years earlier) rather than the 2,000 hour ones that are now readily available. Nor have the claims about CFLs been adjusted for the fact it has been demonstrated over and over and over again that CFLs fall far short of their predicted bulb life. And if the efficiency of incandescents doubles again by 2012 — when the legislation intended to eliminate them from stores takes effect — any cost-over-lifetime advantage for CFLs will be wiped out. Kevin Nolan, Vice President of Technology for GE Consumer & Industrial, has stated: “In addition to offering significant energy savings comparable to CFLs,” the new bulbs will provide “all the desirable benefits including light quality and instant-on convenience as incandescent lamps currently provide at a price that will be less than CFLs.” Link
The advocates of CFLs complain that 90 percent of the energy from incandescents is wasted because it is given off as heat while only 10 percent gives illumination. It seems to have eluded these people that the heat can be a resource to be utilized, rather than wasted. A study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy Link states: “The heat of incandescent lights — more than 341 Btu per bulb per hour — can help to warm a room. Therefore, if the cost of electricity is low relative to the cost of home heating fuel, there may be an economic case for changing to incandescent bulbs in colder seasons.” The extent to which the heat from incandescents reduces home heating bills in the winter — and CFLs cause higher heating bills — is not included in cost comparisons. (Nor from my own experience in Minnesota do air conditioning costs resulting from summer use of incandescents come anywhere close to the winter savings on heating.)
Reducing the use of fossil fuels and lowering carbon dioxide emissions are given as reasons, besides cost, for switching to CFLs. But at least 85 percent of the CFLs are produced in China, with India in second place by a wide margin over any other country. Why is it that those who champion CFLs as a “green” solution for saving energy never consider the fossil fuel energy required to ship them 8,000 miles from China or India across the ocean to the U.S.?
CFLs emit a high percentage of ultraviolet rays. UV can damage oil paintings, acrylic paintings, photographs, upholstery fabrics, furniture, and flooring finishes. (Link Link Link Link) It can not only fade the colors in upholstery fabrics but actually weaken the fibers.
Vu1, a high tech lighting company, states: “Many light fixtures and lamp shades are made of — or incorporate — plastics. UV has a tendency to attack plastic.” Link Its website shows a picture of a premium lampshade whose plastic liner was discolored, brittle, and shattered in several places from the UV of a CFL. Shouldn’t UV damage be factored into all those claims that CFLs will save you money?
Lisa Brosseau, an associate professor in environmental science, says many people store used CFLs in the packages in which they were sold and later transport them that way to recycling centers. She states, “The recent University of Minnesota study I conducted with my team of researchers found that these packages do not contain mercury vapor below permissible workplace exposure levels, as defined by state and federal authorities…and represent a real health and safety concern to those involved in [CFL] storage, transport and disposal, as well as a legal hazard for any businesses that do not adhere to these stipulations.” Link, Link
Since an estimated 400 to 620 million CFLs are discarded annually, certainly a significant number of burned-out ones will accidentally be broken when handling and transporting them for disposal.
The Brosseau study found: “The only package that kept mercury vapor emissions below permissible exposure levels, as defined by state and federal authorities, was a double box with a zip closure foil-plastic laminate bag between the cardboard layers.” Link Who is going to pay for these, and shouldn’t the cost be included in all those comparisons of how cheap CFLs are compared to incandescent bulbs? Incandescents don’t need them. Dr. Brosseau says the “law requires” this special protection if CFLs “are transported by the Unites States Postal Service or a common carrier or collected via curbside programs and mail-back businesses.” A situation has now been created where huge numbers of Americans are violating the law every day, and compliance would be very expensive for curbside recycling programs and further downgrade CFL cost effectiveness.
And shouldn’t the consumers’ cost — not to mention the inconvenience — of transporting burned-out bulbs to recycling collection points be included in the cost of CFLs? Incandescent bulbs don’t require such trips; they can simply be tossed into regular trash, a procedure widely prohibited for CFLs by state and local ordinances to prevent contamination of landfills with mercury.
What about the industrial cost of recycling, which amounts to about 50 cents per CFL bulb? That’s another cost that isn’t included in cost comparisons with incandescents, but it should be because it’s a cost that incandescents don’t have.
Only about 2 percent of CFLs are recycled. The rest are disposed of improperly and end up in landfills, thus creating future environmental problems. It is ironic that advocates of Big Government typically argue that free market solutions sacrifice long-term environmental interests for short term financial gains while government is farsighted. But the CFLs the government is telling people to buy now for financial savings will result in mercury pollution turning up in landfills in future decades. The cost of preventive measures now, or landfill clean-up measures later, are not included in tally of all the money and energy people are told will be saved by buying CFLs.
The law intent on eliminating incandescents flies in the face of the Maine DEP safety recommendation that “homeowners consider not utilizing fluorescent lamps in situations where they could easily be broken, in bedrooms used by infants, small children, or pregnant women, or over carpets in rooms frequented by infants, small children and pregnant women.”
On February 15, 2010 a TV station reported a fire in Hinsdale, Illinois from a CFL plugged into a dimmer. Channel 2 CBS reporter Anne State said the producer of the news program tried to find a CFL that could be used with dimmers but discovered they were “very hard to find and cost more.” Link
On April 30, 2008 the Cumberland Times-News reported the Rick Jenkins family lost everything in a fire caused by a CFL connected to a dimmer switch. Many types of CFLs include package warnings not to connect them to dimmer switches. “I don’t read light bulbs,” said Jenkins. “I wouldn’t think I’d ever have to.” Link
Many CFL advocates will no doubt say, “Serves those people right for not reading the package.” What kind of society are we creating when if you commit the “crime” of not reading a regulation you can lose your house? Far more serious crimes — actual felonies — are committed every day with far less punishment, very often nothing more than probation. And what about the people who can’t read the regulations even if they wanted to? The U.S. Dept. of Education reported January 2009 that 32 million U.S. adults lack the basic literary skill to read a newspaper or the instructions on a bottle of pills. Link Is it realistic to depend on them reading the warnings on CFLs? And if they don’t, they might lose their homes? Wouldn’t it just be better to remove the threat of this danger by simply letting people buy incandescent bulbs?
Once again, a government claiming that it knows what is best for people — and that takes away their right to choose for themselves in the matter — is a dismal failure. In light of the facts just presented, the federal law effectively banning incandescent light bulbs should be switched off.