CFLs – let’s bust the myths!

Project 90 subscribers have from time to time voiced concerns around changing their regular incandescent light bulbs over to the more efficient Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) so I took a closer look at the pros and cons of these lamps. I’ll share my findings with you here and aim to address some of the many myths surrounding them.
Firstly let’s confirm the pro’s:
1. Not only do CFLs use a fraction of the electricity required by incandescent bulbs (around 70% less) they also typically last a lot longer. Numbers range from 8 to 15 times longer. One or two “duds” may turn up, but the vast majority of good quality CFLs will function for years without any problems.
2. This of course means that you save money – not having to replace bulbs often and using less electricity.
So these are the two main advantages – they save you money and they reduce electricity consumption. They must be good, right?
Well, there are a variety of concerns related to CFLs sent in by subscribers:
The main ones include the environmental and health issues around the mercury which they contain, the dangers for people who suffer from epilepsy and migraines, as well as the most common one that they do not provide and effective and aesthetically pleasing light.
1. Let’s start with the mercury. Yes, it’s true they contain the hazardous element mercury in very small quantities. It is therefore recommended that they are recycled and not discarded.
However, did you know that since you are using coal based power in your home, the amount of mercury released into the environment if a CFL were to be discarded is far less that would be produced as a by product of coal power generation to power an incandescent bulb? So by using less coal electricity you are preventing far more mercury for entering the environment than if you stuck with your regular bulbs. Ok, a broken CFL would expose you to the mercury more directly, but we are talking about minute quantities here. Researchers at Lawrence Berkley in the US (a very well reputed research institute) conducted extensive tests to assess the dangers of CFLs. They discovered that this exposure would be less than that of having a small nibble of tuna! Eating a whole can of tuna – which I do regularly- exposes me to far more mercury than a CFL ever could. So if you are really worried about mercury exposure, stop eating tuna and leave the poor CFLs alone.
But remember to recycle them when they fail. Most large retails stores have boxes to drop them off in. If your local supermarket doesn’t, go and ask them why they don’t. If you do however break one, open the windows, and clean up carefully.
2. I have not managed to find any convincing evidence that there is a link between CFL’s and migraines or epileptic episodes. I don’t discount the fact that some individuals have perceived problems associated with CFLs and they might choose to not use them. But please don’t let this discourage you since these individuals are very rare. Also bear in mind that this is the case for any fluorescent light, not only CFL’s, so these individuals would have the same problem with regular fluorescent tubes which have been around for 70 years.
3. Next is a concern that they emit UV light and are therefore dangerous to your skin. Well, all I can say about this one is that those people who are worried about this should never go outdoors because there is a lot more UV waiting for them there!
4. Finally the concerns about the colour and light quality. What you need to look out for is the Colour Temperature – which should be printed on the box. This is an indication of the colour of the light and ranges between about 3000k and 6000k. People who are unhappy with the light quality have likely bought a CFL with a very high colour temperature (6000k), which results in the typical cold/blue, almost sinister, light. Normal old incandescent lamps have a colour temperature of around 2700k to 3000k, so chose a CFL rated within this range and you should be very happy with the light output. They normally print this number somewhere on the box, however if they don’t they would normally have a description like “cool white” or “warm”. Go for a warmer lamp for rooms like bedrooms and living rooms. If the description isn’t clear, go for a lamp that has the colour temperature specified on it and stay as close to 3000k as you can. I must note here that this has nothing to do with electricity consumption.
So I hope this covers most of the main concerns sent to me regarding CFL’s.
The bad reputation, I believe, is a result of inaccurate media reporting and urban legend and not based on hard scientific evidence. Choose a CFL with a nice colour temperature from a well reputed brand and sit back and forget about all these unjustified health concerns. The carbon benefits of using them far outweigh any potential negatives.
Tip: remember, the average CFL might not work with a “dimmer” fixture designed for incandescent bulbs. You can get CFLs that can be dimmed, but just check this before you buy them. It will be clearly marked.