You’re Either with Us, or You’re with the CFLs

  • Published on April 24th, 2008

cfl1.jpgSo, what’s the bigger danger to the American public: Al-Qaeda, or compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs)?

If you follow the conservative punditry, online or off, it’s a tough call. Today’s (April 24) “Mallard Fillmore” comic strip is just the latest example of conservatives taking aim at these energy-saving bulbs, focusing primarily on the fact that CFLs contain mercury.

So, for Mallard Fillmore author Bruce Tinsley, Thomas Sowell, Rush Limbaugh (whose content is not publicly available) and the crowd at WorldNetDaily, let’s review the facts:

So, why all the fuss? You don’t have to read very far into any of the above-linked examples to realize that publications like WND, and commentators like Milloy, Sowell, and Tinsley have a political agenda partly based in a dislike/distrust of environmentalism, and partly based in reaction to legislation banning the use of incandescents. In other words, the treehuggers are trying to take away your freedom as consumers… and undermine the free market… and toss us all into the shackles of godless communism…

What I find really interesting about this whole “debate” is that concern for the average person’s economic interest tends to go out the window with these pundits. Yep, these defenders of the “common man” never seem to mention that CFLs use 75% less energy than incandescents, and last up to ten times longer. The savings can be pretty significant. Ultimately, aren’t these “conservatives” undermining the very market forces they claim to support?

When I was in Kansas City a little over a week ago, I heard Daniel Wallach, director of Greensburg GreenTown, ask a provocative question: “When did the environment become a political issue?” One could ask that about CFLs… is this really something we should be arguing about?

Use a CFL… or the terrorists win! Yeah, I like that…

See also:

Green Options: Daily Tip — Change Your Light Bulbs

Ecolocalizer: 60,000 CFLs and Counting

Green Options: Throw Another Old-Fashioned Light Bulb on the Barbie

About the Author

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog. You can keep up with all of his writing at Facebook, and at


  • Good insight.
    mercury-containing devices is going to change the world.
    Are there mercury-free CFL lamps? Why aren’t they sold instead?

  • What you do not think about is that we (the people of the US and the world) can have both, decide which bulb type to use on our own without government force, and have valid reasons for using standard bulbs, halogen bulbs, or whatever kind of bulb we want to use. Florescent and the modern version (CFL) bulbs aggrevate my migraine headaches. And, yes–I get real migraines and reducing my contact with these bulbs does reduce incidents.

    So, I do both. I use regular and halogen in my home for where I primarily live and CFL bulbs in places where I am not so often there such as the laundry room, front/back porch, closets, and some lamps.

    Keep government out of my bulbs. These CFL bulbs can be coordinated with a true process to reduce pollutants, including mercury, etc., but not when bulb tyranny occurs from members of the government making decisions because they have a relationship with the company that makes the buld.

    We need to think out the process, allow all ideas into the process, and come up with a bulb(s) solution that include bulbs for every use, choice of bulb purchases, and reduction of pollutants.

    We are on our way–let the people that actually understand the bulb industry and have the knowledge to invent more types of bulbs do his and her job.

    How great to have no pollutants when we use the bulb of our choice.

  • Hi Jeff,

    Fantastic article.

    You mentioned that you believe the future of lighting is in LEDs rather than CFLs. That may be. I just wanted to point out that LEDs (1-13% efficient) aren't appreciably more efficient than the best florescent technology (6-15% efficient). Admittedly, LEDs have a distinct advantage in task lighting, as the light rays are already parallel even without a lense.

    The most efficient lights are low pressure sodium vapor, like those used for street lamps, (27% efficiency). Of course, like florescents, LPS lamps also contain toxic substances.

    I got my efficiency statistics from WikiPedia (

  • Rats, I forgot to provide this link:

    You know the 16 step broken CFL clean up requirements are a vast improvement over the one we currently use for incandescents.

    1. Find broom and dust pan.

    2. Use broom to sweep remains of bulb into dust pan.

    3. Empty contents of dust pan into trash can.

    4. Relax. There are no harmful residuals to worry about.

  • 2Jeff

    Sorry for the broad brush strokes, but if all mercury is "bad" then the source should not matter.

    CT (Nice Post!)

    "(methylmercury) a form that it more readily gets to via the emissions from power plants (where the mercury more often ends up in the streams and lakes where bacteria turn it into methylmercury"

    So, since there are very few recycling depots, where exactly will the mercury from all the broken CFLs end up if not lakes, streams and ground water? Whether or not the pathways are quick moving or slow doesn't really matter if the effects are cumulative.

    Regarding the last paragraph, what are the provable "dangerous levels of climate change" to which you refer. The apocalyptic effects of climate change are speculative at best. There are real events occuring in the world right now that should really have you freaking out.

  • Thanks for paying attention and engaging with this, everyone. A few points of clarification:

    Remember that when thinking about this matter (like many others) it’s important to take a whole-system perspective, not just look at the one little bulb in your hand.

    First, it is true that the manufacture of a CFL takes more energy than the manufacture of an incandescent. However, this is quickly made up for by the increased efficiency of the CFL, and if the CFL is recycled, the difference is even smaller (because some electronic parts in the base of the CFL can be reused).

    It is true that the mercury pollution that a CFL keeps from coming out of the smokestack at a power plant is much greater than the amount that would be released from the CFL itself, if broken.

    Remember, mercury is only a problem when it gets inside the body and causes health problems. Not all mercury is created equal. The element mercury in its pure form is not as immediately dangerous because it does not stay in living tissue (our bodies) and cause much damage. It’s important to understand that mercury is harmful primarily when it’s in another form in the environment (methylmercury) a form that it more readily gets to via the emissions from power plants (where the mercury more often ends up in the streams and lakes where bacteria turn it into methylmercury and it can get into the food chain, into fish, and into people). CFLs can pass a test developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency called the TCLP or Toxic Characteristic Leaching Procedure test (one description here). Make sure to look for CFLS that are TCLP compliant, because these are certified to leak out only very small amounts of mercury (0.2mg), even if they are thrown in a landfill and broken. (Note – buying these bulbs does not make it okay to throw them in the landfill. You’ll still do everyone a favor by sending them for recycling when their life is over, so that the mercury (and other valuable parts) can be recovered and reused. If you live in a place without CFL recycling yet, that’s not a good excuse to wait to put in CFLs.

    It’s true that if you turn on a CFL and never turn it off, this will extend its life. Yes, typical on/off home usage reduces the lifetime of the bulb below its theoretical maximum number of hours, but they still last a *long* time compared to incandescents. In the energy efficiency planning industry it is often assumed that CFLS in normal home use will last seven years on average – this may be less than the CFL package says, but is obviously much longer than incandescents.

    It’s true that CFLs and other fluorescent lighting give off radiation… it’s called light! All visible light is a form of radiation, and it’s not necessarily harmful. The link provided above for this claim does not substantiate the claim that fluorescent lighting is dangerous.

    Finally, James Miller is right, there are plenty of ways to reduce non-renewable energy-use… and we need them all! Making the emission reductions necessary to even give the world a statistical chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change requires us to seek out all the emission reductions we can find, as fast as we can get them. If we’re serious about protecting everyone from the negative effects of climate change, we can’t afford to leave any options on the table.

  • @Bobby — perhaps "apples and oranges" was too harsh (I wrote that on the fly), but I do think these are different issues. I'd assume a mercury scrubber would be an appropriate response to emissions from a crematorium (and have no idea why that position wasn't taken — don't know much about this particular case). I think your brush is broad here again… "greens talk out of both sides of their mouths" suggest a uniform position on all of these issues, and that's just not the case…

    There are some studies I've come across suggesting that mercury in certain kinds of fish may come from natural sources, but the more recent research tends to support the "made-man problem" argument:

    There's no doubt that consumers need better access to fluorescent bulb recycling. Chis Baskind at EcoTech Daily gave a nice overview of ways to dispose of these bulbs. One of the most important points from his article: "Unless they’re broken or otherwise damaged, CFLs will hold their mercury indefinitely."

  • "apples and oranges"?

    I thought we were talking about mercury. At present, the mercury from those precious CFLs is mostly non-recoverable because the recycling effort is virtually non-existent in most of the world. If you live in a locality without such recycling, your CFL ends up broken in some landfill leaching mercury into the environment. Given enough time and enough spirally bulbs that landfill will qualify as another Superfund clean-up project for the taxpayers to fund.

    Regarding crematoriums, why did the greens go for a total blockage of the project instead of just petitioning that a mercury scrubber be installed in the exhaust flue? Such equipment does exist. To say that mercury vapor from a CFL is more easily self-contained than that at a crematorium reeks of a political agenda.

    And lastly, since fish and mercury have gone hand-in-hand forever, why does Earthshare run political advertisements on the subject making out like it's a man made problem?

  • I have quite a few LED bulbs in use. They are very expensive but the power savings are phenomenal. Ten watts to fill your room with light. I purchased my bulbs from LEDtronics for about $135 each but the 25 year life expectancy gives you plenty of time to recoup your costs.

  • I would like to see a more concerted effort on behalf of the CFL manufacturers to provide opportunities for the safe disposal and recovery of the CFLs and their mercury. Most of the packages clearly label that the lightbulb must be disposed of properly. However, when many people try to find where they can dispose of the CFL, discover that the nearest place to do so is 75 miles away.

    This loop needs to be closed through a combination of regulatory and market mechanisms.

  • Matthew–

    You bring up a few points that deserve consideration. On the energy to produce CFLs — without exact figures, I can't speak directly to this, but how much of this extra energy is offset by CFLs' longer life? Even if they don't last as long as manufacturers claim, this still isn't an apples-to-apples comparison.

    "a statistically shorter life" — any idea on the actual numbers here? If it's only 5x the life span of incandescents, don't consumers (and the environment) still come out ahead? Again, without numbers, can't do any actual ROI calculations…

    I will say this… ultimately, I think CFLs will end up being a "transitional" technology… I think LEDs have much more potential to serve as an "ideal" lighting source. Until manufacturers can bring costs down significantly, though, CFLs still look like the best deal around…

  • You make good points but it is undeniable that the environmentalists talk out of both sides of their mouths regarding mercury. Mercury is okay in CFL's, but according to Earthshare not in fish, even though that process is primarily naturally. One environmentalist group even managed to get the construction of a crematorium blocked in Colorado by raising fears of mercury vapors being released from the dental fillings of the deceased. So, the question remains as to why the greens see mercury as okay in CFL's but not okay anywhere else?

    And BTW, environmentalism has always been political.

  • Bryce, having mercury in your dental fillings does not make it OK to have mercury in your CFL's–mercury is bad whether it's in your teeth, or in your light fixtures. And mercury toxicity is cumulative–the more you are exposed to it, the worse your problems will get. I say: the less, the better.

    I would also like to point out that fluorescent lights give off cancer-causing x-rays and other dangerous radiation.

    The bottom line is: there are safer ways to reduce non-renewable energy-use use than to use CFLs. We can use solar power or windmills in the summer. We can install energy-efficient windows and wear sweaters instead of turning up the heat for the winter. We can carpool and use public transportation and ride our bicycles more. The list of healthy energy-saving strategies goes on and on. We don't have to jeopardize our health to do it.

  • Your own link tells the story.

    "If CFLs are started more frequently than the standard 3-hour on/ 20-minute off

    i.e. shorter cycles operation- they will have statistically shorter life than their rated life."

  • I don't use any watch batteries and I don't own a Mercury thermometer but my house would use over one hundred CFLs. CFLs require much more energy to manufacture than the lowly incandescent bulb and in short on/off cycles as lights are used in the typical home CFLs won't last very long. Fluorescents get their long life when they are left on for long periods of time like they used in most office and factory applications. The phosphorus coating on the inside of the tube isn't very nice to the environment either. Incandescent bulbs are filled with Argon the third most plentiful gas in the atmosphere.

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