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Are Energy Efficient Bulbs All They Are Lit-up To Be? ☠ Toxic CFLs ☠

I normally blog about organics, but from time to time I can't help but add in an opinion on other "green" consumer products.

Being green and earth-friendly, I am always interested in ways to save energy and the safety of consumer products. Recently it has come to light that energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs (those twisted bulbs) could be harmful not to mention the overall global cost of manufacturing and disposing of them.

Are CFLs toxic?

According to Leonard Robinson, Chief Deputy Director of the California Department of toxic Substances Control, once they are used up they become ticking time bombs. "They need to be captured and recycled" he said.

Their toxic ingredients end up in landfills and the chemicals that leach from them build up in the environment and can pollute water and soil ultimately poisoning fish and other wildlife.

These toxins can enter the food chain and accumulate, for example, when larger fish eat smaller ones the larger fish become contaminated and in turn, we eat the large fish, as is already the case with mercury in tuna.

What could be so toxic about a light bulb? 
Mercury among other things

Mercury can be dangerous even in small quantities, it can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, and it damages the central nervous system, kidneys and brain.

Small amounts can also build up in the environment if the bulbs are thrown in the garbage and break or are incinerated.

Each bulb only contains a small amount of mercury, about 5 milligrams, however, according to mercury research from Stanford University, 5 milligrams is enough to contaminate approximately 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe drinking levels.

Aside from Mercury, there are many electronics inside a CFL that burn when the light blows and release toxic voc's. I literally had to leave my home for hours after one of these bulbs blew leaving a toxic stench of burning electronics throughout the entire house.

CFL's produce a more intense light and can aggravate a range of existing problems, especially in those with light-sensitive conditions such as migraines and skin conditions. These bulbs can trigger migraines, as well as dizziness, loss of focus and are said to cause discomfort among those with epilepsy.

Dr Colin Holden, president of the British Association of Dermatologists, said: "It is important that patients with photosensitive skin eruptions are allowed to use lights that don't exacerbate their condition. Photosensitive eruptions range from disabling eczema-like reactions, to light sensitivities that can lead to skin cancer. It is essential that such patients are able to protect themselves from specific wavelengths of light emitted by fluorescent bulbs, especially as they are often trapped indoors because they can't venture out in natural sunlight."

The following is a list of symptoms and diseases known to be linked to exposure 
to fluorescent lighting:

I have written them to ask for their sources and will update this article as soon as I get a response.

Be careful not to break a CFL

If you do, don't simply treat them like a standard light bulb.

Manufacturers and the EPA say broken CFLs should be handled carefully and recycled to limit dangerous vapors and the spread of mercury dust.

The EPA offers a detailed procedure you should follow: 
Leave your home. Air out the room for a quarter of an hour. Wear gloves. Double-bag the refuse. Use duct tape to lift the residue from a carpet. Don't use a vacuum cleaner, as that will only spread the problem. The next time you vacuum the area, immediately dispose of the vacuum bag.

Visit the EPA site for the complete clean-up instructions

CFL's What's the cost?

CFLs need to be taken to a recycler, where the mercury is recovered, processed and sent out to be re-used. There are very few curbside recycling programs for these bulbs therefore it is estimated that only five to 10 percent are actually being properly recycled. Most consumers throw them out in the trash. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and editor of the journal Environmental Research said,

"This is an enormous amount of mercury that's going to enter the waste stream at present with no preparation for it."

Another hazard from the CFL bulbs may be to taxpayer's pocketbooks. In Brittan, where they offer better recycling initiatives, it costs approximately $1,300 to properly dispose of just one recycling bin of bulbs.

There really is no efficient, cost effective way to recycle all the toxic materials in CFL's.

One CFL bulb contains: Glass with a toxic phosphor coating, gas containing toxic mercury vapor, non-recyclable plastic housing, an aluminum screw base (recyclable), solder (recyclable), ferrite coils, capacitors, carbon resistors, epoxy coated circuit rectifier, transistors, non-recyclable epoxy coated components (circuit board, epoxy/paper composites), Copper (recyclable). For a total of 10 non-recyclable materials and 3 recyclable materials.

One Incandescent bulb contains: Non-toxic glass, non-toxic argon gas, Tungsten filament (recyclable), fine metal filament (recyclable), aluminum screw base (recyclable), ), solder (recyclable). For a total of 7 recyclable materials and zero non-recyclable materials.

Another issue is that studies show CFL's require 5.7 times more energy to manufacture than the incandescent bulbs.

What about saving energy?

This leads me to explain my interest in light bulbs. I never thought much of how a light bulb worked or why they burned energy until I got my flock of chickens. Anyone who owns animals that are in need of a heated pen will know that incandescent light bulbs are a great source of heat for animals. It is actually amazing how much heat is generated by a single 100-watt incandescent bulb.

The heat from incandescent bulbs is what burns the energy. Almost all of the energy consumed by any light bulb is dispersed as either light or heat.

CFL's produce less heat thereby reducing energy consumption. However, in cold climates we can benefit from the heat produced by incandescent bulbs. Using CFL's could actually increase the cost of heating your home in winter.

From what I have gathered, an incandescent lamp turns its electric power completely into heat. Even the visible light it gives off is actually thermal radiation. Incandescent bulbs create light by heating a filament inside the bulb - the heat makes the filament white-hot, producing the light that you see. The efficiency of these bulbs is around 20%. This means that 80% comes off as heat. This would translate to a 60W bulb not only giving you a light source, but also acts like a 48W heater.

It also important to note that CFL's lose some of their energy efficiencies in very cold or very hot weather. Fluorescent lamps work best at temperatures between about 15° C and 40° C.

So in reality, if you live in a northern climate as I do, summer days are long and nights are cool. By the time you need to switch on a light bulb, you can also benefit from the extra heat. In winter, your thermostat regulates the temperature within your home, therefore the supplemented heat from your bulbs will be registered by the thermostat and you will use less radiator heat.

In a nutshell, my take on CFL's

  • They pose a health threat in home
  • I question if they really are efficient, especially in northern climates
  • They contain environmental toxins which can end up in our food chain, such as tuna,
  • The cost of recycling is too high,
  • Many are not being recycled properly,
  • And it is said that on a global perspective regarding energy savings, there is considerable energy consumed in manufacturing the complicated components of CFL's.
So you give up, all of this is just too complicated?

Saving energy through lighting is very important for you and for the environment.
Here are some ideas on how to save energy without worrying so much about bulbs.

In northern climates simply use your old incandescent bulbs inside the home and use the new CFL's outdoors where the heat is not needed. Be sure to carefully remove any broken CFL's and send them for proper recycling.

Use LED solar lights whenever possible. While the technology is still a bit costly, LED's provide all the energy savings (if not more) than CFL's without the toxins.

Turn off your lights when you leave a room.

For security have lights on timers or sensors rather than leaving them on all night.

Buy an LED book light or LED rechargeable candles for night-time reading rather than a bedside lamp.

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