Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs

Aug 11th, 2007 | By | Category: Response to Critique

I’ve received several responses regarding my column on compact fluorescent lightbulbs.

From Tom Robey at Hope for Pandora brought up some interesting points:

For reference, 5 mg is 1% of what mercury thermometers contained. Yes there IS mercury, so you should follow these instructions in the rare event that a bulb breaks.

So, this is where I should come clean; every lightbulb in my house is a compact fluorescent. When I moved (about a year and a half ago) I converted over. Since then, I’ve broken a bulb, and had to deal with the hassle of cleaning up mercury from my household. I stand by my assertion in the column. Mercury is a serious neurotoxin; most modern thermometers have converted over to alcohol as a result. Bulbs break. I’d say, if you have a heavily used bulb that is out of reach, it is probably safe. For floor-level lamps, children’s rooms or seldom used light, stick with tungsten.

We do use water to fuel our consumptive power habits, but what about all of those folks in Wyoming or Michigan that burn coal? If we don’t use our extra power here, guess who we sell it to?

We must consider the cost of transmitting electricity. A significant portion of the power would be used up just getting it to Wyoming or Michigan. So, while the Pacific Northwest does sell electricity to California, less power consumed here does not automatically translate to less coal consumed elsewhere.

n the United States, use this helpful guide to find out where your bulbs should be disposed of. In Seattle, go here or here.

Strictly speaking, Tom is correct here. CFLs can be properly disposed of in most places — as hazardous waste. That’s a long way from recycling the mercury and other toxins in these bulbs. I suspect that a great deal of even “properly” disposed bulbs will end up leaching heavy metals into drinking water.

How many home owners will go through the hassle of making an appointment and transferring used bulbs to a hazardous waste pickup site — no more than a handful at a time please! Most will end up in the regular trash.

From e-mail:

You rightly illuminated several of the grievous shortcomings of the fluorescent (and compact fluorescent… the spiral ones) bulbs. But what about LED (light emitting diode) bulbs? Although they are a bit premature for prime time due to cost, they are still super cool. Really. Unlike traditional “heat-bulbs,” >90% of the electricity sent to LED bulbs becomes light.

I like the LED bulbs as well. They’re even more efficient than CFLs, energy wise and avoid most of the toxic heavy metals. Still, have you seen the light from these bulbs? The colors are even worse than those from CFLs.