Keep light bulb hazards in perspective | Science Matters | David Suzuki Foundation

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Whenever a new product comes to market, inevitably it will have flaws that can drive some people to distraction, so much so that they may be unable to see the forest for the trees.

Case in point — compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs.

Much has been made about switching from standard, incandescent bulbs to CFLs to help save energy. On the surface, it's an easy choice. CFL bulbs put out as much light as regular bulbs while using one quarter of the energy. Incandescent bulbs, on the other hand, haven't really changed much since their invention over 100 years ago. More than 90 per cent of the energy they use actually produces heat rather than light.

With CFLs now on the scene and issues like global warming and air pollution at the top of people's radar screens, it's only natural that switching to CFLs would become an issue. In fact, I'm even doing a series of advertisements with Powerwise, an energy-conservation partnership between the Government of Ontario and local power producers, to get people to start replacing their old bulbs.

Still, the switch to CFLs is not without criticism. Some folks suggest that because the bulbs use less electricity, people will be tempted to keep them on longer, negating their energy-efficiency advantage. Others point out that all that extra light from people keeping their bulbs burning for longer will add to the burden of light pollution in our cities. Still others say that the quality of light is less pleasing, and Lupus sufferers tell me incandescent light is better for them.

Far and away the most common concern is about mercury. CFLs contain a small amount of mercury — a toxic metal. Mercury poisoning can be a serious health hazard. The term "mad as a hatter" actually comes from the days when hat makers used mercury to improve the felt on hats. Many hatters exposed to large amounts of mercury over long periods of time suffered brain damage. Mercury accumulation in fish can also be a health hazard to those who eat certain types of it regularly.

But we have to keep things in perspective. The amount of mercury in a CFL is tiny — many times less than is found in a watch battery or dental filling. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest sources of mercury in our environment today, because coal contains mercury. By reducing our electricity consumption through measures like switching to CFLs, we reduce the demand for power, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, along with mercury and other pollutants.

Naturally, we have to consider the entire life cycle of a product before we make a wholesale switch. But the stats on CFLs are pretty compelling. According to Environment Canada, replacing even one 60-watt standard bulb with a 15-watt CFL in each of Canada's 12 million households would save up to $73 million a year in energy costs and reduce greenhouse emissions by nearly 400,000 tonnes.

This isn't to say that people don't need to be educated about the safe use and disposal of these bulbs — only that these shouldn't be used as yet more excuses for inaction. Retailers should be required to take back old CFLs for recycling, as a few — such as Ikea — already do. Consumers should be careful when installing or replacing these bulbs, and if one should break, follow cleanup safety guidelines recommended by Environment Canada or the Environmental Protection Agency.

CFL bulbs alone are hardly the solution to all of our environmental problems, but they certainly are a step in the right direction. They may have their flaws, but they're getting better all the time: Better light, less mercury and shatter-resistant bulbs. So until something even better comes along, they're a good, simple and effective way to help lower electricity consumption, save money and reduce our environmental footprint — which is ultimately the whole forest we need to see.

June 22, 2007