Confessions of a CFL Detractor

To declare that I am against the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL’s) and still call myself an environmentalist seems, in today’s green world, to be an oxymoron.

More than any other consumer item the CFL has come to represent the green movement. The arguments in favor of CFLs are compelling. They use 1/3 to 1/5 the electricity of incandescent bulbs. Because they last an average of 6,000 to 15,000 hrs, compared to the incandescent bulb’s 750 to 1,000 hours, the initial higher price is a good long term investment that can save as much as $30/bulb over its life. It has been estimated that if the 110 million American households each replaced only one incandescent bulb with a CFL the energy saved would be equivalent to closing two coal burning power plants and the reduction of green house gasses equivalent to removing 1.5 million cars off the road.

Changing out every bulb would certainly be a no brainer, a patriotic duty for every world citizen that I would fully embrace if I could also swallow the following beliefs:

1. “Its OK to sell millions of CFL’s and ban incandescent before we figure out how to safely dispose of the CFL.”  Although each bulb contains enough of the neurotoxin mercury to be considered hazardous waste, it is estimated that only 3% of them are currently properly disposed of. The rest end up in landfill or incinerated and the mercury is released into the air and land.

2. “The factory workers in China, who manufacture these bulbs and suffer alarming rates of mercury poisoning, are of no consequence.”

3. “Science has not yet proven that CFL’s cause harm so the people who are getting ill from them must be wrong.” In fact CFL’s emit 200 times as much UV radiation as incandescent bulbs and people who suffer from Lupus can’t spend time under fluorescent lighting without risking painful skin flare ups. Each CFL also emits a pulsed radio frequency or “dirty energy” that can extend out 10 feet. According to the findings of Dr Magda Havas an expert in the field of Electro Magnetic Radiation many people have reported migraine headaches, flu-like body aches, fatigue and difficulty sleeping when exposed to the radio frequencies emitted by CFL’s.

The good news is that there is a very promising alternative to the energy guzzling incandescent and the CFL. The LED (light emitting diode) is a non-toxic solution that uses 1/8 the electricity of an incandescent bulb, roughly ½ the electricity of a CFL, and has a lifetime of 35,000 to 50,000 hours! Unfortunately the bulbs can cost as much as $80 and even though the lifetime replacement costs are virtually non-existent it is currently beyond the reach of most Americans. Significant breakthroughs have been made however and affordability is optimistically in the near future.

Perhaps in the face of  the enormity and urgency of a human caused environmental meltdown changing a light bulb is one feel-good thing within the grasp of us all. But before we become completely invested in millions of CFLs, as the green marketing machine would have us do, I believe that a better approach might be to aggressively conserve in other ways while supporting the development of the more holistically environmental LED.

It is far easier to change a light bulb than to change our behavior but wouldn’t it be interesting to know what the cumulative effect of 110 million families consciously shutting off all unnecessary lights might be?

Paula Baker-Laporte FAIA  is an architect and a certified building biology practitioner. She is the principle of Baker-Laporte and Associates and EcoNest Design. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber