Incandescent Tuesday May 29, 2007, 8 comments

Countries all over the world are banning the ubiquitous incandescent light bulb, ostensibly in order to protect the environment

While I applaud any changes that render the average home more efficient and makes better use of the world’s already strained energy generation infrastructure, I lament the short-sightedness, bandwagoning and lack of understanding that is catapulting our spiraled, green friend to the top of the light bulb charts.

Has a single government done an exhaustive cradle-to-grave study of the compact florescent (CF) light bulb?

Traditional incandescent bulbs contain 35 grams of materials, most of which is glass and 0.5 grams of which is tungsten – probably the most exotic and potentially dangerous material in a incandescent light bulb. There is also copper, tin and iron, and the material that “glues” the glass bulb to the contact base. All this material works together to provide approximately 1,000 hours of light with an average energy usage of 60 watts.

Contrast the CF with its average energy usage of 15 watts and a reported life expectancy of approaching 12,000 hours.The average CF bulb is comparable in weight to a standard bulb. Like a standard bulb, they contain glass, copper, tin and iron. While the CF bulb does not contain tungsten, it does contain approximately 5mg of mercury in the form of mercury vapor. An average CF also contains plastics, a phosphor,and the materials associated with ballast circuitry.

When one accidentally drops an incandescent bulb, one gets the broom a and sweeps up the pieces. When a CF is dropped, one must open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes. After this, the materials are discarded in a similar way to a standard bulb, while avoiding skin contact with the remains.

Once these bulbs are in the landfill, the incandescent bulb is leaching tungsten into the ground and surrounding water. While tungsten is not a particularly safe metal, it is infinitely safer in the environment than heavier metals like mercury – which is exactly what that CF bulb will be leaching into our drinking water.

According to wikipedia, mercury is a very dangerous toxin which affects the central nervous system, endocrine system, and kidneys. Long periods of exposure can result in severe brain damage and death. Pregnant women exposed to mercury may have children suffering from birth defects.

Mercury is frightening, but governments that enact bills that will put hazardous chemicals in every home, in bathrooms and kitchens and living rooms are even more frightening. This is unacceptable.

CFs do indeed last longer and use less energy, but CF’s contain dangerous chemicals. It is true that far fewer bulbs would make it to the landfill than if they were normal lights, but we’re still putting highly toxic and dangerous chemicals into our ground water and food chain every time we throw away a CF bulb.

Governments have made no provisions to force manufacturers to take these dangerous CF bulbs back at the end of their service lives. If companies were required to take back these bulbs and safely dispose of the hazardous materials, it would go a long way to making the CF a more environmentally friendly choice. But it still introduces mercury to the home.

Less dangerouns alternatives might already exist. LED – light emitting diodes – contain no mercury, and rival or surpass CF technology in terms of light produced per watt of energy used. LEDs have a specified lifetime of over 100,000 hours (more than eleven years!) before the light level produced drops below 80% of the rated brightness. LED lights are more expensive than standard incandescent bulbs, but would likely rival the cost of CF technology.

Many people find that LEDs produce a harsher light than incandescent or CF technology, due to the very narrow bandwidth of the light produced. It is not a perfect technology. But CF bulbs also produce a harsh light with strong coloring that can change the apparent color of paint on walls and upholstery on furniture.

While governments are jumping on the CF bandwagon in order to capitalize on public demand for greener initiatives and encouraging CF technology and adoption, shortsightedness may be dooming future generations to the threat of mercury poisoning.

Other technologies exist that may have fewer drawbacks than CF. LED may or may not be the answer, but before we fill our landfills and waterways with toxic metals, government should at least investigate all available technologies and support the ones that do the least amount of harm to our ecology and put the fewest dangerous toxins in the bedrooms of our children.


Comments

Jorge Tuesday May 29, 2007


An excellent article.

I’m a bit behind you in my research, but was quite alarmed to learn about the mercury component in these bulbs.

Where would one buy LED-based bulbs?

Adrian Tuesday May 29, 2007


I don’t know Jorge. I know that LED bulbs are making major inroads in marine quarters, and subsequently, I know where to buy LED fittings for my boat. I am unsure about where one would buy them for the home.

I suspect the search engine of your choice would be the best place to start.?

James Tuesday May 29, 2007


Great read. I completely agree.

Something that the book Cradle-to-Cradle, by McDonough & Braungart, suggest is that we ‘lease’ products instead of buying them. For example, in your ‘fee’ for an office chair, a portion of that cost goes to the manufacture’s recycling plant, where they are charged with pulling apart the chair after it’s useful life into it’s key elements, and repurposing them for newer product. No downcycling. Lower energy costs for production (mine less metals, produce less virgin plastic, repurpose fabric fibers, etc). And in the end, the entire chair misses the landfill. I can get behind that. I care less to ‘own’ the chair/car/computer/light bulb then I do to see any of it in land fill.

Adrian Tuesday May 29, 2007


Yes James, it was reading that book that initially started making me think about the real environmental cost of things.

One of the larger problems is that the public has been force-fed the idea that fuel/energy usage efficiency = environmentalism.

Jorge Tuesday May 29, 2007


In Soviet Russia, James, chair gets behind YOU!

Adrian Tuesday May 29, 2007


In Soviet Russia, that’s still funny ;)

sarah Tuesday May 29, 2007


The real problem I have is the closed mindedness of many so-called environmentalists. They don’t seem to realise that it weakens their argument if they vehemently denounce anything that sheds any doubt upon it. Rather, they should be embracing the doubts as pointers towards how to produce a truly environmentally friendly product. Ultimately, any form of extremism causes more harm than good.

Oh, and does this mean we’re going to start stockpiling bulbs? ;)

Sweetie Tuesday June 5, 2007


Actually, you should never dispose of a CF in the garbage. It should always be turned over to a hazardous waste facility which can dispose of it properly, recycle any recyclable materials, etc. There are more and more such centers now sprouting up in the U.S. just because of the CF. But they remain few and far between.

The current argument, too, depends on the fact that the electrical power used by a traditional bulb so far outstrips that of the CF, that the toxic emissions of the electrical facilities (e.g., coal-burning power plants usually) outweigh the toxic emissions of disposed bulbs. What is really needed is a better way to produce the electrical energy in the first place. And we have those, the governments are just not providing the incentives to develop them, or the deterrents for using current methods.

And, by the way, it is recommended that the CF not be used in the bathroom or kitchen. Particularly, it is dangerous to use the CF in the kitchen due to the potential to poison food and items used to prepare food. Sounds like a no-brainer, but isn’t apparently. Instead, LEDs are recommended for the kitchen. Thus, Jorge, there have to be at least some fixtures out there somewhere. I know that they’ve been featured in “This Old House”, but have yet to look up resources myself. Good luck!

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