The Case Against Compact Florescent Light Bulbs

11/09/2010 05:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why use compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs)? There is one good reason to use them: they use significantly less energy than the commonly-used incandescent light bulbs. They use 1/4 to 1/5 the energy of incandescent light bulbs. Widespread use of CFLs could save as much as 7% of total household electricity usage in the United States.

The energy savings are a strong reason to use CFLs, but the energy savings are not enough to compensate for the negatives associated with using CFLs.

11 Reasons Not to Use Compact Florescent Light Bulbs

1. CFLs are more expensive to buy initially (3 to 10 times more expensive than incandescents). In compensation, they last 8 to 15 times longer. So, long term, CFLs can actually cost less. Plus, since CFLs last longer, businesses can save the labor costs of replacing light bulbs.

2. CFLs actually increase heating costs (and energy use) in colder climates because CFLs produce less heat than incandescent light bulbs. Conversely, CFLs decrease cooling costs (and energy use) in hotter climates, especially during the heat of summer.

3. CFLs require more energy in manufacturing than incandescent light bulbs. But their embodied energy is probably offset by their longer lifetime.

4. The vast majority of CFLs sold in the U.S. are manufactured in China or other countries. In September 2010, the last GE incandescent light bulb plant closed, leaving only one manufacturer still producing light bulbs in this country. In the push to adopt CFLs, we may be abandoning our lighting independence. Is that smart?

5. The manufacture of CFLs exposes workers to potentially dangerous levels of mercury. How soon will we discover that this exposure is critically unhealthy (how long, for example, did it take to discover and react to the toxicity of asbestos?). Already there have been reports of hundreds of Chinese factory workers being poisoned during the manufacture of CFLs. At one CFL factory in Jinzhou, 121 out of 123 employees were found to have excessive mercury levels. One worker's mercury level was 150 times the accepted safe standard.

6. CFLs might be exposing us to unhealthy gases as we use them. I understand that no gases are supposed to leak from modern CFLs, but my wife, who is chemically sensitive, gets sick around them. To me, that means that something does leak out. My question: How much testing has been done on the safety of CFLs?

7. According to a European health commission, CFLs could pose an added health risk in the ultraviolet and blue light they emit. This radiation could be unsafe for people who have some rare skin conditions.

8. Broken CFL bulbs could expose consumers to dangerous levels of mercury. Some health workers insist that home owners should move out of their home if they break one bulb - until they can hire a professional crew to come and clean the home of mercury contamination.

In my 60 years, I've broken at least 40 to 50 light bulbs through carelessness and bumbling. With incandescent light bulbs, all you had to do was pick up the broken glass and move on. With CFLs, you have to move out.

A DEP study in Maine found, that even while following EPA guidelines for best practices in cleaning up broken CFLs, they were unable to remove mercury from home carpet. If that's the case, how soon will our children be exposed to dangerous accumulated levels of mercury in our homes?

9. How do we safely dispose of CFL bulbs? Mercury from broken bulbs or improperly disposed bulbs can contaminate disposal sites, leach into the water table, or leak into the air. Note: Most CFLs are currently disposed along with all other household waste in plastic garbage bags. Plastic bags allow unsafe levels of vapor release in landfills.

10. Are the current disposal methods exposing landfill workers to unsafe mercury levels? As far as I can tell, no one has yet studied the health effects on landfill workers?

11. Is there anything to the allegations that CFLs create dirty electricity? I've heard some rumors but I haven't been able to track down what I consider a reliable source. Do we need to do more research on this relatively new technology? How often have amazing new things turned out to be really bad ideas over the long term?

The main reason I wrote this article is because I believe we shouldn't be banning the old technology altogether when there are too many concerns about this new technology. We are rushing to judgment, and rushing perhaps in the wrong the direction.

Personally, I'm looking forward to the new natural light LEDs that are about to be introduced. I can't wait until they get developed enough to be cost-effective.