Save the light bulb!

Source: CFACT

by Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

[SPPI Note:  see extensive SPPI paper at:  http://scienceandpublicpolicy.org/originals/cfl_fires.html ]

We’re about to lose our light bulbs.

Among the many foolish things the political class in Washington has foisted on an unsuspecting public in recent years was the mandated phase-out of one of the most successful inventions in human history, the incandescent light bulb.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by President Bush, set in motion a scheme to phase out the incandescent light bulb, replacing it with what the public was told were “more efficient” and “climate friendly” alternatives. Those who questioned the wisdom of the move were assured that emerging technologies, specifically the Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL), would more than fill our lighting needs.

It hasn’t worked out that way. CFLs are more expensive than traditional light bulbs, less reliable as an instant and consistent source of light, and they contain potentially dangerous mercury. Dropping an incandescent light bulb on the floor is a matter of sweeping up broken glass. Break a CFL and you risk contaminating your home and clothes with mercury. Furthermore, the Washington Post recently reported that GE is closing its last remaining incandescent light bulb factory, located in Winchester, Virginia. CFLs can be produced cheaper in China than they can in the U.S., and that’s where the new green jobs are expected to go.

Some members of Congress are finally waking up to the folly their colleagues committed three years ago. Representatives Joe Barton (R-Texas), Michael Burgess (R-Texas), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) introduced a bill – the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act (BULB) — in early September that would repeal the section of the 2007 energy bill that mandates the use of more energy-efficient bulbs. “I’m not opposed to the energy saving bulbs at all,” Barton told the Daily Caller (Sept. 17). “But I say let the consumers make the choice, instead of mandating.”

Our misadventure with light bulbs touted to be more energy efficient is another example of what is known as “technology forcing.” Washington mandates the use of a technology under the assumption that when the mandate goes into effect, the technology will be ready. But if the technology isn’t ready for prime time – and CFLs are not – then consumers suffer. The exercise is all the more absurd when the phase out of a proven product by an unproven one is done in the name of fighting global warming, climate change, climate disruption, or whatever label is used to justify government interference in our lives.

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) is popularly credited with “inventing” the incandescent light bulb. Actually, Edison improved on work others had been performing for three-quarters of a century. But his light bulb, with its carbon filament, made the product commercially viable and so transformed people’s lives forever. Out went the gas light or candle of old, and in came the incandescent light bulb, powered by colorless, smokeless, weightless energy. Edison immediately grasped the importance of his innovation. Shortly before he filed for a patent for his incandescent light bulb in 1879, he said: “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will buy candles.”

Compare this with the words of presidential candidate Barack Obama in January 2008. He told the San Francisco Chronicle in an interview: “Under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket.”

The 19th century inventor wanted to make electricity accessible to ordinary people. The 21st century environmental elitist wants to impede that access.

The difference between the two men is well worth pondering.

What’s in store for the incandescent light bulb? 

The Energy and Security Act of 2007 set minimum efficiency standards for lighting that in effect spell an end to the incandescent light bulbs that have lighted our homes and businesses for over a century.  The popular 100 watt light bulb is scheduled to phase out in 2012 with the law working its way down to phasing out the 40 watt light bulb in 2014.

What will replace the incandescent bulb? 

The two main contenders to replace incandescents are compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and light emitting diodes (LEDs).

How do different lights compare?  

Lost Industry and Jobs 

On September 24, 2011 the classic American light bulb was switched off.  The last American factory making 100 watt A-line incandescent bulbs shut down production in Winchester, Virginia laying off 200 workers.  Following other industries before it, lighting production is shifting to China, Mexico and other places.  Subsidies paid by American tax and rate payers will generate paychecks for workers abroad.

Compact fluorescents and mercury 

A fluorescent light bulb contains 5 mg of mercury.  An EU scientific report states that these concentrations are “well above regulatory limits for Hg in a general environment.”

It concludes that exposure should not be harmful if precautions are taken and the exposure time limted, but notes that “children breathe more air per kg of body weight than adults at rest and tend to be more physically active than adults. Therefore, mercury vapors, if present in indoor air, may be delivered to children at higher internal doses than to adults. (citing, Differences between children and adults: implications for risk assessment at California EPA, Miller et al. 2002).

What happens if you break a fluorescent bulb? 

In 2007 a woman named Brandy Bridges set about changing over to CFLs at her home in Ellsworth, ME.  She broke a bulb and called the poison control hotline who referred her to Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection.  The DEP didn’t know how to respond so suggested she contact an environmental cleanup firm which promptly sent her an estimate of $2,004.48 to clean up the mess.

It won’t cost you $2,000 to clean up a broken CFL, however, Maine and the EPA soon after promulgated guidelines on what you should do if you break one.  Steps include evacuating the room, turning off heat or AC for hours, ventilating the room, avoiding vacuuming, collecting all particles, then going after the smaller particles and Mercuty with sticky tape, containing the whole mess in a sealed receptacle, separating from household trash and taking it for hazardous disposal.

Which light source last the longest?

LEDs should last the longest, however, their life can be shortened by occasional voltage irregularities.  Many consumers have experienced disappointment when their CFLs did not live up to their advertised lifespans.  The lifespan of CFLs is shortened by turning them on and off.  It was later recommended to leave them on for at least 15 minutes before shutting them off.  In addition, CFLs are damaged by cold, do not function well at freezing and therefore have their lives shortened when used outdoors in winter condtions.  The average incandescent is highly tolerant of being turned on and off.  If kept burning continually LEDs and CFLs will outlast incandescents.  The Guinness Book of World Records logs the longest burning incandescent bulb as burning for over 100 years and still going.

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