News: The Informed Consumer - Light Bulbs

Compact fluorescent light bulbs

make an informed decision with your next purchase

June 9, 2011

by Jenny Peng



Incandescent Light Bulbs              Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs)


In a recent front page news article The Vancouver Sun spotlighted BC’s efforts to become the first province in Canada to ban conventional incandescent light bulbs.  As of January 2011 75W and 100W incandescent bulbs are banned in BC, with a 45W and 60W bulb ban set for December 31, 2012 In his article titled “Light-bulb ban will stay in B.C.,” journalist Jonathan Fowlie also noted that the federal government’s plan to eliminate 100W and 75W incandescent bulbs by January 1st 2012 will be delayed until January 1st 2014. And the ban on 60W and 40W bulbs is extended to December 31st, 2014 [1].


BC’s ban on incandescent light bulbs is one of the ways the government is aggressively tackling energy conservation under the Clean Energy Act. These old bulbs have a lifespan that is ten times shorter than a CFL and uses up much more energy. They require heat to burn up a small filament inside the tube until it is hot enough to produce light [2], this heating process uses up 90% of the energy, while the rest 10% produces light. In contrast, CFLs are 75 % more energy efficient; a regular 15W bulb can replace a 60W incandescent with the same amount of light output (for more comparisons see below). It is clear that compact fluorescent lights meet a higher standard in every category, except that they contain mercury.  


Incandescent Light Bulbs

·         Lifespan = 1,500 hours [3]

·         $3.19 / 2 pack 60W [4]

·         Electricity costs (@ $0.20/ kWh and 30 bulbs/ house) = $720.00 for 60,000 hours

·         No mercury

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

·         Lifespan = 10,000 hours [3]

·         $7.98 / 2 pack 13W [4]

·         Electricity costs (@ $0.20/ kWh and 30 bulbs/ house) = $168.00 for 60,000 hours

·         Contain mercury


Incandescents are efficient heaters

            It is interesting to note that while incandescent bulbs are not particularly efficient at producing light in terms of the percentage of the energy used, with only 10% of the energy producing light and the rest producing heat.  That makes incandescent surprisingly efficient little heaters that are capable of significantly offsetting heating loads in rooms when they are turned on in the winter (whereas they may increase the cooling load in summer when turned on).  Incandescents utilize energy inefficiently in producing light, but efficiently in producing heat, so perhaps they are net energy savers if they significantly reduce overall energy consumption associated with heating loads in buildings.


This is a consideration that seems to be largely missing in the debate about switching to CFLs and LEDs.  Energy companies may actually benefit from the higher heating demands as a result of a comprehensive move away from incandescent bulbs to CFL and LED lights. 


Europe has also implemented a ban on incandescent lights, but a German businessman named Siegfried Rotthaeuser has circumvented that law by rebranding incandescent bulbs as heaters, rather than source of light [5].  Rotthaeuser sells incandescent bulbs as ‘heat balls’.


Any assessment of the energy savings from banning incandescents is incomplete if it does not take into account a factor such as heating loads (there may be other factors as well).


There are also other considerations along with energy consumption, such as the presence of mercury in CFLs.


Effects of mercury on human health

The fact that CFLs contain mercury is slowing down the federal government’s initial plan to ban incandescent light bulbs by 2012. To allay fears in the potential effects of mercury seeping into the environment, a plan to implement a nationwide recycling program in underway. In the meantime, here’s what you should know about mercury.


There are three forms of mercury that can pose a health risk to humans [6]. The first is elemental mercury. This form is found in thermometers and thermostats, a “…silvery, volatile liquid that gives off a colourless, odourless vapour at room temperature.” According to HealthCanada, the greatest damage comes from breathing it in to our bodies because the vapours are immediately absorbed. “At high concentrations, elemental mercury vapour can damage the mouth, respiratory tract and lungs, and can lead to death from respiratory failure.” [7]


 The second form is inorganic mercury. Inorganic mercury forms solid salts when combined with elements such as sulphur, chlorine, and oxygen. Health Canada cites that these salts can cause “…kidney failure and gastrointestinal damage…blisters and ulcers on the lips and tongue, as well as rashes, excessive sweating, irritability, muscle twitching, weakness and high blood pressure…” [7]


The third form, methyl mercury, is the most dangerous. It poses the greatest risk because it is mostly absorbed in the digestive tract when we eat mercury contaminated fish species. Once it is absorbed in the digestive tracts it enters the brain and lead to symptoms like “…personality changes, tremors, changes in vision, deafness, loss of muscle co-ordination and sensation, memory loss, intellectual impairment, and even death.” [7] Moreover, pregnant women need to be especially cautious because “…it can also cross the placenta into the fetus, building up in the fetal brain and other tissues. Methyl mercury can also be passed to babies through breast milk…Because children's nervous systems are still developing they are particularly sensitive to methyl mercury. Effects can include a decrease in IQ, delays in walking and talking, lack of co-ordination, blindness and seizures.” [7]


Mercury in CFLs

            An ENERGY STAR® qualified CFL bulb has an average of 3mg of mercury, about as much as the dot on the letter “i”. Depending on the brand of bulbs, these lights can contain anywhere from 2 to 5mg and for linear fluorescents the amount of mercury range from 5 to 25mg [8]. These bulbs do not emit any mercury if they are intact or in use, but if they break the mercury contained inside the glass tubing is released into the air and the surrounding environment. The most common settings are kitchen floors, desks, countertops, floors, carpets, etc...where crawling infants and young children are likely to be exposed.


 When a CFL breaks…

Scientists from the Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation headed by director Robert Hurt [9], broke then measured the amount of mercury released in the air likely to occur in a typical everyday situation. He found that “[t]he amount of mercury gas coming off [broken CFLs] is over a milligram over a few days. If you put that milligram into a poorly ventilated room, the concentration can be over the recommended limit for children [of 0.2 µg/m³].” He adds, “[t]he overall risk is low, but it’s not zero risk, and there is definitely an opportunity to do better.” [9]


            The stance the government of Canada is taking on the use of CFLs is supportive of rather than discouraging buyers. It states that “CFLs provide a net environmental benefit compared with incandescent products.” [10] The logic of a “net benefit” is better understood if the problem of mercury in the environment is evaluated on a national scale. In 2003, Environment Canada reported that 34% of the country’s mercury emissions came from coal-fired plants [11]. By changing light bulbs to more energy saving ones, less mercury is emitted by these plants into the atmosphere. More specifically, the government claims that “[i]f every household in Canada changed one incandescent light bulb to an ENERGY STAR® qualified CFL, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by approximately 400,000 tonnes—the equivalent of taking about 70,000 cars off the road for one year.” [12]


            However, it seems that the government of Canada’s conclusion of CFLs’ net benefit to the environment would be rather simplistic to a group of scientists from Yale University. In one of the first comprehensive study comparing mercury emissions from CFLs and incandescent bulbs, the study showed that determining the “net benefit” of the switch depends on your geography. “In general, for regions where coal is a major source of power, the substitution of CFLs for incandescent bulbs will result in a significant reduction in mercury emissions to the atmosphere.” [13] Which is consistent with information put forth by the Canadian government. But the study continues by highlighting that places such as AlaskaCaliforniaOregonMaine,Vermont, which uses little coal for electricity would actually “result in increased atmospheric mercury emissions” from “marginal increases in the use of CFLs…” [14]. The same can be said for countries such as Norway and Paraguay where a high proportion of electricity is generated from hydro power. In British Columbia, 80% of our electricity comes from hydro power [15] which challenges the notion that replacing conventional bulbs with CFLs does more good than harm.  


Recycle, recycle, recycle

            Whether or not individuals choose CFLs over other energy efficient light devices such as light emitting diodes (LEDs), Canadians are bound to see more of CFLs in the landfills once the ban takes effect in 2014. The delay of the ban from 2012 to 2014 is giving Environment Canada more time to draft regulations on “…end-of-life management practices for the product.” [16] Recycling these bulbs is a significant step in minimizing direct human exposure to mercury in these lights. Yale researchers noted that mercury from these bulbs will most likely be emitted when it breaks during transport, from vapour during incineration and evaporation from landfills. “Proper recycling can reduce the environmental burden of lamp disposal. In aggregate, proper recycling (with mercury recovery) is applied to approximately 20% of all discarded bulbs in the United States, accounting for the recovery of almost 2.3 tons of mercury.” [17] If my math is correct that means 9.2 tons of mercury is not recovered, free floating and posing all kinds of unimaginable dangers to individuals and to the land. Once that mercury is manufactured as the makeup of the bulb, it enters into the ecological equation, one that is already highly saturated with toxins, chemicals, and pollution. So while CFLs offers a more energy saving alternative during its lifespan, properly recycling them at the end of their lifespan will ultimately determine our commitments to the health of Mother Earth, our neighbours and ourselves.


Proper Disposal Techniques [18]

            The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a guide on the steps you should take in case a CFL(s) breaks:



Before Clean-up: Air Out the Room

1.                  Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.


2.                  Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.


3.                  Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.


Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces

1.                  Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.


2.                  Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass pieces and powder.


3.                  Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.


4.                  Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.



Clean-up Steps for Carpeting or Rug:

1.                  Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.


2.                  Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.


3.                  If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.


4.                  Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.


Clean-up Steps for Clothing, Bedding, etc.:

1.                  If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away. Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.


2.                  You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, such as the clothing you are wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.


3.                  If shoes come into direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from the bulb, wipe them off with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal.


 Disposal of Clean-up Materials

1.          Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup.


2.          Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials. Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.



Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug:

Air Out the Room During and After Vacuuming

1.           The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.



2.           Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.



For more clean up guides in case a CFL breaks, see:


Recycling and Disposal Depots in Canada [19]:





Is there a study on how much mercury is released into the environment during the production of the CFLs, and whether or not the plant workers, or neighbours are at risk?

commented by christine.bowden on 2012-10-16 09:06:13