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Compact, fluorescent, dangerous

Just minutes apart come two tweets about compact fluorescent lightbulbs. First this from Revkin:

Edward Hammer, inventor of helical CFL bulb, has died, age 80.

And then this from Ken Green.

Besides being expensive, undimmable, slow-to-brighten, giving off ugly light, and containing mercury, compact fluorescent bulbs apparently give off UV radiation that will damage your skin.

One assumes the close proximity of the tweets is coincidence.

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    Response: energy saver bulbs
    - Bishop Hill blog - Compact, fluorescent, dangerous

Reader Comments (30)

Isn't life confusing. No one wants to cut down rain forests unless its to grow sugar cane for ethanol or palm oil for biodiesel. The US EPA will use mercury emissions to shut down coal plants but also encourages everyone have dozens of fragile mercury sources in every home.
Fluorescent bulbs (strait ones at least) have been around for decades. Has anyone ever raised an issue with their UV emissions.
The cynic in me suggests that now that CFL have become cheap commodities and incandescents have been outlawed, there are moves afoot to force people to purchase the next high margin bulbs based on LED technology so we need a good scare to force the issue.

Jul 23, 2012 at 6:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterSean

After burial, only one will will have a positive environmental impact.

Jul 23, 2012 at 7:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

I have one or two CFLs, but hate the things and these days have been replacing expired incandescents with mini halogens enclosed in conventional-looking bulbs. These are not too dear here in France and at least they give decent light.

Jul 23, 2012 at 8:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn in France

@ Sean
Yes indeed Sean and in our wisdom we try to move away from resources that we thought were scarce (peak oil scare) in an effort to move towards sources that are truly based on scarce resources like the fresh water that is needed to grow crops for ethanol and other bio fuels. Go figure. :-)

Jul 23, 2012 at 8:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterWindy

And of course, the Sandia dichroic incandescent which gives the same efficiency as the CFL but is much simpler and has no mercury, was killed off.

Jul 23, 2012 at 8:12 PM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

Jul 23, 2012 at 8:22 PM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

Jul 23, 2012 at 8:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnoneumouse

Yes, all normal wattage conventional incandescent light bulbs are still available in bulk on line in the UK. But stocks are dwindling.

Jul 23, 2012 at 9:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

Just ready the bumph on my latest CFL purchase - "will reach 60% of rated light output within 60 seconds of switch-on".......pathetic.

Jul 23, 2012 at 9:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterDave_G

A while back, I read that just one CFL in 1m^3 of waste was sufficient to classify the load as toxic waste. How many tons of accidental toxic waste must there be around the world?

Don't mention power-factors & recycling costs!

Jul 23, 2012 at 10:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Drake

All may not be well in the LED world either. More at

Jul 23, 2012 at 10:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnother Ian

I have always thought that the best way to stop the EU's insistence that we all use CFLs would be instigate a campaign to get everyone with a dead CFL to stick it in a jiffy bag (marked addressee to pay), and send it to their MEP in Brussels or Strasburg. With about 400 million people in the EU, even if only one in a thousand people did this, it would soon render the institution toxic and not just in the political sense.

Jul 23, 2012 at 10:36 PM | Registered Commenterlapogus

Crazy times when Greenpeace force us stash mercury in our children's bedrooms.

Jul 23, 2012 at 10:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterJack Hughes

"Sandia dichroic incandescent"

GE played with this back in the early 1990's. The idea is to shape the emissivity to be high in the visible and low in the IR. Frustrating the IR emission results in higher filament temperatures for a given input electrical power. However, it had reliability problems. The sub-micron structures used to modify the emissivity rapidly smoothed out at operating temperatures. In hindsight, no surprise there.

Around the same time, GE also played with a multilayer dielectric mirror coating on a small inner bulb located in a halogen tungsten lamp that reflects IR back to the filament, while allowing visible to pass through. Basically the same idea as above, shaping the emissivity spectrum. This improves efficiency by about a factor of 2. This worked well enough to go to product in 2000 or so, garnished big awards from New York State, GE is so green, blah blah. I don't know if it is still in production. It was an impressive feat to produce millions of coated glass bulbs for pennies each, with a 20+ layer stack of dielectric films each controlled to a few nm thickness tolerance, and able to work for thousands of hours at temps higher than 1000 K.

Jul 23, 2012 at 11:03 PM | Unregistered Commenterchris y


"Yes, all normal wattage conventional incandescent light bulbs are still available in bulk on line in the UK. But stocks are dwindling."

Aldi and also Poundland I think, do rough duty 60W and 100W incandescents at about £1.50 for four. They have to be new production and I'd guess rough duty is a loophole.

Rough duty bulbs have more filament supports and are supposed to run at a lower temperature. I can't say they are noticeably yellower.

I stocked up with incandescents when the nonsense was announced and snapped up a shed load of CFLs when they were subsidised and sold in Tescos at 10p a pop.

Jul 23, 2012 at 11:40 PM | Unregistered Commentercosmic

Looking for central government guidance when disposing of CFLs? Then look no further than this
It's maybe a bit too technical for some but it's as comprehensive as we would expect from the experts in Direct Gov.
Here's the full text:

'Energy saving light bulbs
Energy saving lightbulbs (CFLs) can be hazardous if not disposed of properly, as they contain mercury. 'Energy saving light bulbs' explains how to recycle them safely.'

A beautiful and succint example of recursion (Searching the site for this, yields only itself)

Jul 23, 2012 at 11:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoyFOMR

Light bulbs have been the only things we've bought at Aldi that have proved dud.

Jul 24, 2012 at 12:09 AM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

I saw some data / graphs last year from a Swedish study in Svalbard / Spitzbergen that show atmospheric mercury concentration steadily rising from the 80's onwards.

One has to suspect that considerable quantities of mercury contaminated curly wurly eco-bulbs find their way into European and North American garbage incinerators and onward to the upper atmosphere and contribute to this fairly linear increase in nasty Hg concentration. I'd rather like to see a time series to evaluate if eco-bulbs are a significant contributor to environmental mercury pollution.

I understand that various arctic animal species are several times more toxic mercury wise than food regulation permits...

Don't expect Gweenpiece /FOE/WWF to be bleating about this anytime soon. After all - I seem to remember that WWF branded ecomercury bulbs were on the supermarket shelves less than a year ago.

Jul 24, 2012 at 3:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterTomO

Sparticus: "And of course, the Sandia dichroic incandescent which gives the same efficiency as the CFL but is much simpler and has no mercury, was killed off."

Why would they "kill off" something so good? Too much conspiracy theory... Sadia Labs still seems to be researching SSL ( but note that their research is funded by the US government; not something to warm the cockles of a sceptic heart.

Jul 24, 2012 at 3:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterBitBucket

BitBucket: in business terms 'killed off'' means it was too late to market despite being in many ways, at least in principle, a superior product. The conspiracy was the backhanders paid by those owning the inferior product to politicians to frame the legislation to accelerate that market development.

It's the same as Enron funding Gore and GS funding Obama to bring in cap and trade on the basis of fake science: you do realise there can never be any CO2-AGW because it 'self-absorbs' by ~200 ppmV......:o)

Jul 24, 2012 at 8:55 AM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

My mother-in-law insists on using 100W bulbs, which she buys from a local convenience store. As the quality brands are no longer available, the ones she buys don't last long.

One has exploded in the socket, another has melted the fitting and burned off the cable insulation, leaving exposed leads, and another simply dropped from the fitting (leaving the bayonet) and smashed on the floor.

If they're going to ban the things, then they should at least ensure that cheap grey imports can't be used instead.

Jul 24, 2012 at 11:04 AM | Unregistered Commentersteveta


"Fluorescent bulbs (straight ones at least) have been around for decades. Has anyone ever raised an issue with their UV emissions."

Conventional fluorescents are usually mounted high up, and mostly in commercial/industrial settings. CFL's are used domestically and often in closer proximity to the user. The UV will obey the inverse square law - half the distance, 4x the dose.

It may not amount to much compared to a sunny day, but it would be interesting to see the figures...

Jul 24, 2012 at 12:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

I like the CFLs and use them thoughout my home. Started a few years ago during a power outage while using a generator, I was able to save 1000 watts or so by switching. The newer CFLs get bright quickly and have pleasant color spectrums. They do not flicker like the tubes, but can develop an annoying 60 cycle buzz. I do not like the government trying to force us to use them, let the free market take its course, people will naturally use what is cheaper and better.

Jul 24, 2012 at 12:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterRedbone

Spartacus: "The conspiracy was the backhanders paid by those owning the inferior product to politicians to frame the legislation to accelerate that market development."

Yeah, right. Did Elvis tell you that?

BTW, as many people are vitamin D deficient, maybe some extra UV from CFLs will help.

Jul 24, 2012 at 1:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterBitBucket

Campaign contributions are a matter of Public Record. GE chose to get the windmills not the electric lamp plants.

Jul 24, 2012 at 4:52 PM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

Jack Hughes : Crazy times when Greenpeace force us stash mercury in our children's bedrooms.

No more crazy than letting FotE design (National!) energy policy - what could possibly go wrong?

Frankly Jack - you will be lucky to have electricity, never mind Greenpeace sponsored Mercury infested light bulbs. If you are lucky your children will have plenty of Bat DNA - they are going to need it - navigating those Mini Mercury Bombs in the dark.

Another Ian : All may not be well in the LED world either [... link].

I like my LED lighting. I'm not sure Chiefio has done any kind of controlled experiment here. You could, with a bit of tinkering, add some UV - if you like that sort of thing (personally I hate anything bellow 400nm - makes everyday things fluoresce) . To re-assert my sceptic credentials though .... do what yer like. (I promise not to force you into LED lighting by law)

lapogus : [..dead CFL...] to stick it in a jiffy bag (marked addressee to pay), and send it to their MEP in Brussels or Strasburg [...]

A good idea with scope well beyond MEP's and Strasburg. You do realise though that sending a CFL to your MEP will probably get you classed as a "terrorist". It's OK if you send one to Jack (see above), for his child's bedroom - by law. Just don't send the same to your MP, MEP or b*****d Greenpeace - then you are a terrorist.

Then again - the more I think about this form of protest - well...

Jul 24, 2012 at 5:43 PM | Unregistered Commenter3x2

People whinge about CFLs.
I find them much better than candles, pressure lanterns and whale oil, all things considered.
In the days of incandescent globes, I was forever up a ladder replacing them and I dont't miss them one bit.

Jul 24, 2012 at 11:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Cruickshank


FWIW, we have a light fitting with one CFL and one halogen ‘globe’ to improve the light quality. The CFL needs replacing nearly as often, and I have never had one last anywhere near as long as is claimed on the packet.

Jul 26, 2012 at 4:53 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

CFLs need a suitable light fitting to stop them overheating and many fittings designed for incandescents are wont to make them overheat.

Together with which there are problems with RFI, the quality of light and the warm up. The recycling aspect does not appear to have been thought out, odd in view of their claimed green credentials. From personal experience, I doubt they last as long as claimed. It may be that they do if they are fitted so they keep cool and the number of on/off cycles is linited.

I use incandescents on the stairway as the carbon footprint of a fall down stairs should not be underestimated.

I resent the manipulative way CFLs were foisted upon us. I suspect large companies lobbying to make us buy an expensive product we would otherwise not have wanted, were involved, with liberal doses of greenwash to justify it..

As for Geoff, CFLs were available long before the ban so if you thought they were superior and saved climbing up ladders, that option was open before.

Jul 26, 2012 at 11:32 PM | Unregistered Commentercosmic

"compact fluorescent bulbs apparently give off UV radiation that will damage your skin"

Really? Might be worth remembering, these things work exactly like the fluorescent tubes we've had for decades now. Might also be worth noting just what 'fluorescent' means. In all these tubes, both old and new, the gas inside is ionised, and emits UV, that bit is correct. What you are failing to take into account is that the phosphor coating inside all these tubes, absorbs the UV and re-emits it in the visible spectrum so very little (if any) actually leaves these lamps.

UV comes in two flavours, A and B. UVB is of shorter wavelength and is responsible for sunburn and cancer with limited exposure. Until recently, UVA was not considered harmful but in large doses over long periods, it too is ages the skin with a mild risk of cancer but UVB is the nasty stuff and it's often used for erasing EPROMS in interlocked enclosures to ensure the lamp isn't activated while open.

To the best of my knowledge, 'fluorescent' lighting emits UVA but since this is absorbed by the phosphor coating, very little if any should be emitted.

While considering 'compact fluorescents', you might want to think about modern (white) LED lighting. Why? Well LED's are monochromatic, ie, single colour. White LED's also have a phosphor coating, just like 'fluorescent lighting' and just like them, internally, White LED's emit UV too which the phosphor re-emits as white light. How much of that UV do you think escapes the LED?

Anyone planning to go to the disco tonight? ;-)

Oct 2, 2012 at 1:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobbie

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