Thursday, April 15, 2010

Are CFL's a better choice?

For years, we have been hearing about the energy-saving benefits of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFL's) over traditional incandescent light bulbs for residential uses. Incandescent bulbs use a large portion of their energy as heat instead of light, making them less energy efficient than CFL's. CFL's have been touted as a great hope for energy efficiency and savings on utility bills (up to 75%, and lasting 10 times longer), and governments and codes are working to phase them out completely. According to the EPA, "If every home in America replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL, in one year it would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes. That would prevent the release of greenhouse gas emissions equal to that of about 800,000 cars."

A few of the disadvantages of CFL's are known, but can be mitigated. For example, they cannot simply be thrown in the trash because of the trace amounts of mercury. The Seattle City Light website offers recycling advice (Seattle area: Bartell Drug, Seattle City Light’s North or South Service Centers, King County’s Household Hazardous Waste sites. Anywhere:, Home Depot storesIKEA.) CFL's are more expensive but last longer than incandescent lights. Their lifespan can be shortened by being turned on and off frequently, so they may not be the best choice for a bathroom, for example.

Some of the practical and aesthetic complaints about CFL's include the time they take to reach full brightness (which varies, but in my experience at least 30 seconds) and the color of the light, which (subjectively) has a colder, more institutional feel than incandescent light. 

Health-wise, a worry about CFL's has been mercury content and disposal. The EPA finds that the amount of mercury in the environment caused by emissions from electricity (e.g., coal fired plants) saved by using CFL's over incandescent light bulbs far outweighs the amount of mercury released by disposing of CFL's.

However, Prevention Magazine reports a more serious disadvantage of CFL's. Scientists are exploring the connection between the increasing electromagnetic field (EMF) that surrounds us and diseases like cancer. Michael Segell, reviewing the work of epidemiologist Sam Milham, MD, writes that:

"A..kind of EMF, a relatively new suspected carcinogen known as high-frequency voltage transients, or 'dirty electricity.' Transients are largely by-products of of modern energy-efficient electronics and compact fluorescent lights and dimmer switches-which tamp down on the electricity they use. This manipulation of current creates a wildly fluctuating and potentially dangerous electromagnetic field that not only radiates into the immediate environment but also can back up along home or office wiring all the way to the utility, infecting every energy customer in between."

According to Segell, These transients "are created when current is repeatedly interrupted. A CFL...saves energy by turning itself on and off repeatedly, as much as 100,000 times per second." Electrical Engineer Dave Stetzer says that your body basically becomes charged up as you are "coupled to the transient's electric field."

We are far from knowing the full effect of modern technology on our health, and I look forward to delving more into this issue in the future. Though the EPA, the City of Seattle and many other outlets are unreservedly pushing for the use of CFL's, the choice of lighting should be left up to the individual taking in all of the current scientific information available.
Read More:

Seattle City Light offers tips for using CFL's including common CFL "killers" and myths about CFL's.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Mercury Fact Sheet (PDF)

The Swiss Reinsurance Company's 1997 report  "Electro-smog: a Phantom Risk (PDF)

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