There’s a killer in your house.

Okay. Can we change the light bulb now?

This year marks the final phase out of incandescent light bulbs in the EU, and their total replacement by what’s termed compact fluorescent lamps or CFLs. The reasons given for this move are that CFLs are more environmentally friendly, because they reduce CO2  emissions, and more energy-efficient. According to EU figures, these energy-saving bulbs can easily save you €50 a year, even including the price of the bulbs, and can cut a household’s total electricity consumption by 10-15%. CFLs last at least 6-10 years, compared to 1-2 years for conventional bulbs and use as little as one-fifth of the electricity used by conventional incandescent light bulbs. When you think there are estimated to be 4 billion light bulbs in the EU, the savings are considerable.

It all sounds great, doesn’t it?

There are some downsides though. They are of course more expensive than incandescents but the most noticeable is that when turned on, they can take 10-15 minutes to reach their full lighting capacity and even then, the claimed brightness on the packaging is exaggerated, as the EU has been forced to admit. Some independent testing has shown that an 11W CFL produced just over half of the illumination of a supposedly equivalent 60W bulb and that the actual claimed brightness varies widely from manufacturer to manufacturer.

They also flicker and when there’s a number of them in a house, a lot of people complain of a slight background humming noise. I certainly hear that hum but then again, I’m blessed with acute hearing.

There are claims by members of several health organisations of other problems. Member feedback to the Migraine Action Association, suggests that the light from CFLs seems to trigger migraine attacks in some people. The Eczema Society has had reports from sufferers which suggests the light can exacerbate some skin problems, a claim supported by some skin care specialists, who think the excess UV emitted by the CFLs is too harsh for the skin. At the moment, it appears to just be feedback from people suffering these ailments and in the absence of any research in these areas, it’ll remain just that. I find it disturbing that so much work has gone into studying the benefits of these lights but nothing much about looking into these complaints seriously.

I suppose if these were the only problems with these lights, one could adapt to their usage but unfortunately, the issues are a bit more serious.

Research done by the Alab Laboratory in Berlin, detected several known carcinogenic chemicals and toxins being emitted when CFLs were switched on, including phenol, naphthalene and styrene. Their report advised that CFLs should not be left switched on for extended periods and their location should be as far as possible from a person’s head, to reduce the chance of inhaling the toxins. In some similar research, done for the Federation of German Engineers, the scientists came back with the recommendation that CFLs should not be used in an unventilated environment and again, that they should be placed as far away from the head as possible. They described the carcinogens as a kind of electrical smog produced around these lights.

There’s another problem brought about because the bluer light emitted by CFLs, more closely matches sunlight than the yellowish light from incandescents. Some research was done over a decade ago, to determine why the incidence of breast cancer was much higher in women who worked night shifts. The answer was the effect light could have on the body’s production, by the brain’s pineal gland, of a hormone called melatonin, which is thought to protect against some types of breast and prostate cancers. The highest concentrations of melatonin are produced by the body at night but light can disrupt this natural process. Night workers, of course, sleep in the day, when there’s more ambient light around.

A piece of research, done at Haifa University by a professor of biology called Abraham Haim and published in the science journal Chronobiology International, found breast cancer rates were up to 22 per cent higher in women who slept with a light on, as compared to those who slept in total darkness. He’s of the opinion that CFLs could result in an even more increased risk of breast cancer if used late at night. Make of it what you will, but it’s of note that Professor Haim has removed every CFL from his house.

All these potential problems are troubling but the real and undoubted danger to your health is when a CFL breaks, either through an accidental impact or because of something like an electrical overload. They contain mercury, which even in small quantities, is a very dangerous chemical if not handled with due care.

A study done for Germany’s Federal Environment Agency by the Fraunhofer Wilhelm Klauditz Institute measured what happened when a CFL broke and released its mercury payload into the air. The did various scenarios but one of the worst case ones was breaking two CFLs, one of which contained 2 and the other 5 milligrams of mercury. The found that the resultant air burst produced 7 micrograms of mercury per cubic metre of air. When you consider that the official Health and Safety limit is set at 0.35 micrograms of mercury per cubic metre of air, you can see how dangerous an event a breakage is. What’s even more disturbing, is that high levels of mercury were still being recorded at floor level over five hours after the breakages.

The importance of the floor level bit is that if one breaks in a bedroom when people are asleep, with their head therefore nearer the floor, they’ll be getting hours of heavy exposure to something that can seriously harm them. This scenario is the greatest domestic danger posed by CFLs. After a breakage, elemental mercury evaporation soon begins and then you’re dealing with a cloud of mercury vapour, which is invisible, odorless and toxic.

Take a look at what the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has to say about what to do in the event of a CFL being broke.

The only time I’ve seen such heavy and at the same time lame advice, was reading decontamination instructions about how to deal with a persistent chemical warfare attack or the fallout from a dirty bomb. Do you seriously want something like that in your house, especially if you’ve got a few rugrats tearing around in it? If so, I’d advise you to buy each of them a cute little hazmat suit and a respirator.

Given that there will be soon be 4 billion CFLs installed in the EU, breakages for one reason or another, will be inevitable, as will be the increased incidence of mercury poisoning.

What do you do with a CFL when it eventually stops working? The official advice is not to throw it out in household rubbish but bring it to an officially approved disposal facility. Where are these disposal facilities? There are none in my area and a few phone calls to my local waste disposal services, ended up with my questions alarming them. They’re simply not just ignorant of the problem coming at them but totally unprepared for it, as are consumers.

People are not aware of the danger posed by CFL breakages nor the eventual effect on the environment of throwing them out mixed in with other household rubbish. Make no mistake, these bulbs will end up in household rubbish. What will happen then is they will be broken when the rubbish is compressed in the collection truck, exposing the sanitation workers to dangerous levels of mercury every time. The contaminated rubbish will then be tipped into landfill sites, which will definitely shatter any remaining unbroken ones. At this point, the water and land has been irreparably contaminated. The water contamination, means it can now enter the start of the food chain and gradually work its way up it, causing congenital abnormalities in all species, including us. Calling it an eco-disaster doesn’t even begin to cover it.

To give you an idea of how severe mercury contamination can be, the mercury from one CFL is enough to contaminate 30,000 litres of water, way beyond the approved safety standard and millions of these bulbs are going to end up in landfill sites.

I visited a friend’s house one evening last week and remarked that the interior lighting seemed dull and I could also hear a very faint ringing sound. It’s the lights he explained, he’d replaced every bulb in the house with CFLs and they weren’t very good either. I thought it might have the makings of an interesting article, so I began to do some research on CFLs, as a prelude to writing it.

Quite frankly, within an hour of googling, I was appalled at the number of potential and real health issues surrounding these lights, never mind the ecological time bomb their careless disposal is almost certainly going to create. The issues are being identified by reputable scientific research institutes, not irresponsible scare mongers and they’re being ignored. The rush to legislate these bulbs down consumer’s throats, in order to save the planet, without any pause to bottom out both the health and disposal issues, will end up in people being seriously harmed, if not killed by the things.

The one thing I know for certain about CFLs is, I won’t be letting a single one of them into my home.

©Pointman

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Comments
44 Responses to “There’s a killer in your house.”
  1. Petrossa says:

    It’s very simple. Way back then in the 90’s CFL’s seemed to be gods answer to light. So factories retooled and made whopping loads of them to cash on the certain boom which never came. So they went to the EU commission, whispered some words in the right ears and incandescent was out.

    Don’t you worry, they are trampling at the bit to sell us Led’s so as soon as they recuperated their investments and sold of stock the all new gods wonder of light will come froward, Led.

    But as with anything, nothing comes without a price so also Led isn’t without it’s downsides. Severe energy drainage even when switched off due to el cheapo transformers, fire hazards due to the common misconception they don’t heat up, severely reduced lifecycles due to contaminated materials, toxic waste from production, what have you.

    All progress isn’t always for the better.

  2. NoIdea says:

    DARK AGES

    All the evil old gods are coming back,
    Mercury the vaporous quicksilver hack,
    Lucifer the light bringer tail swinger,
    Gaia his muddy wet bitch singer.

    Ugly heavy metal monitors,
    Beryllium ear ringing toxins,
    Plumbum assassins,
    Poisonous amalgams.

    Insane green decommissions,
    Pandemic the pan flute emissions,
    Force fed putrid exposures,
    Our homes dangerous enclosures.

    Unelected European bureaucrats,
    Trying hard to poison us,
    Chemically reduce our resistance,
    To a plant breath based existence.

    We can just bypass their stupid laws,
    No longer incandescent light bulbs,
    Now they are all new sustainable,
    Low energy infra-red heating globes.

    NoIdea

  3. David Ball says:

    Hey there Pointman. Had a look around this evening. Great site.
    Hate to quote Arny, but ” Ah’ll be back”!!

  4. I live in France where it’s quite organised. You can take used bulbs to the supermarket where there are recycling boxes for them specifically. There are also ads on the tele telling people not to put the used bulbs in the bin but to take them to recycling spots.

    However, there is no warning that these lamps are dangerous if broken, and I wonder how many get broken when they are thrown into the recycling bins in supermarkets full of breathing customers.

    • Pointman says:

      Hello and welcome to the blog Sarah. What I find amazing, is that the equivalent of the DEFRA breakage warning is not printed on the boxes CFLs come in.

      Pointman

  5. meltemian says:

    These lightbulbs are one of my pet hates Pointman. I knew they were dangerous if they broke but I hadn’t realised you shouldn’t sit too near one! I brought a stockpile of incandescent bulbs with me when I moved here and still have a few left but they won’t last much longer.
    I believe you can still obtain them if you ask for “Rough Service” bulbs as they are supplied to garages and workshops who use hand-held inspection lights. When ‘himself’ and I used to run garages we used to buy them, more expensive but they needed to be robust!! I believe they are still available on the internet.

  6. Blackswan says:

    Pointman,

    Your excellent and timely article prompted me to call my local Council today, to inquire about their “hazardous waste disposal facilities”. I was referred to the Environmental Health Officer.

    Long story short – this character informed me that he’d never heard of any requirement for safe disposal of CFLs. I suggested that such information was readily available on the internet and that Google might be a good place to start.

    He was most indignant, saying that as a graduate of the University of Western Sydney and after ten years experience as an Environmental Health Officer, he had never heard any mention of the toxic nature of CFLs and that he had “no intention of checking it out”.

    Oh dear. All is not lost however because he referred me to the Regional Manager of Environmental Health in the State Government, a chappy with a real name and phone number and everything. Wow!! I’m in luck.

    Rest assured that I will be making further inquiries and if I get a similar response, next port of call will be my local Green Member of Parliament. It’s about time these buggers earned their fat pay cheques and pensions.

    Sheesh – I’ve been out of this game too long. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll keep you posted on my progress (or lack of it).

    • Pointman says:

      ” .. after ten years experience as an Environmental Health Officer, he had never heard any mention of the toxic nature of CFLs ..”

      Even the “experts” are totally unprepared on this one and it’s a real eco-disaster for a change.

      Pointman

    • Blackswan says:

      Pointman,

      Five days later and I still haven’t caught up with the State EHO, but I did get a call from the contractor of our waste disposal services. In answer to my query as to disposal of these toxic time-bombs out of my house he said that there was currently an unfounded internet scare-mongering campaign and I shouldn’t give it another thought – just pop them in the recycle bin along with other broken glass and “she’ll be right mate”.

      Thanks to other commenters for your links to other sources – more ammo for us all to knock this lunacy on the head once and for all.

    • Blackswan says:

      UPDATE:

      I have put several questions to the officials I have contacted, among them;

      i) If a government mandated toxic household product is sold without prior health and safety warnings and without safe disposal instructions, what is the Government’s liability in the event of illness or injury? I suggested the aftermath of asbestos might be considered.

      ii) Breakages aside, if no safe facilities are provided for end-of-life disposal of CFLs, what will be the repercussions of having these toxic products crushed in landfill sites and mercury inevitably leaches into soil and the water-table.

      One thing is certain – all concede that this is an issue which has never been raised, discussed or resolved.

      Ripples on a pond Pointman. Your timely warning is having the matter brought into focus on several fronts……. and I haven’t really started yet. The wheels of bureaucracy “grind exceeding slow” but rest assured, move they will – eventually.

      • nzrobin says:

        Hi Blackswan,
        Along the lines you mention; here’s a paragraph from my submission to NZ’s Energy and Efficiency Conservation Authority.

        “Promoting and distributing mercury tubes throughout all New Zealand homes; while knowing full well its harmful effects is extremely irresponsible. How could a responsible government entertain such an idea? Consider what applied to the use of asbestos. Will the manufacturers of CFLs be ready with their millions of dollars to pay for the health problems they have caused? Or will that [problem] be handed back to the public through government tax, ACC, increased insurance premiums and/or healthcare costs.”

        All the best to you.
        Robin

      • Blackswan says:

        G’day Robin,

        Thanks for your encouragement – it was your earlier comment and links that made me hopeful that such endeavour may not be just a bureaucratic runaround and a waste of time. So far I’ve only made phone calls to ascertain the state-of-play here, but I will follow them all up in writing and will pursue the issue wherever it needs to go.

  7. Bob TI says:

    Hi All

    Just in case anyone needs to stock up on bulbs

    http://www.bltdirect.com/products.php?cat=81&nm=GLS+Rough+Service+Lamp

    They do upto 200 watt

    Bob

    • Petrossa says:

      In Europe your package will be confiscated. Importing banned goods. Some cleverclogs tried to circumvent it by calling lightbulbs something else, forgot what, heating devices or something. Didn’t go down well. Resistance is futile

      • No it won’t. Not in the UK anyway. I bought from them not that long ago.

      • johnnyrvf says:

        I think that depends on who and how the banned goods are imported, in my part of La France I don’t think it will pose much of a problem.

      • Petrossa says:

        France (wher ei live) is one of the more rabid ones. It’s only due to chance/incompetence/priorities you get them past customs. Try and import a large quantity that sticks out enough. Even my vitamin packages get opened, either by the customs or by La Poste.

  8. Pointman says:

    A tragic story about a mass mercury poisoning event.

    http://knowlessolar.wordpress.com/tag/mercury-poisoning/

    Pointman

  9. Carcinogenic….. (the magic word.) …I keep finding it everywhere, when I go looking for it, but it’s still the magic word.

    • David. A. Evans says:

      Hi Marsh dwelling small hound, (not small marsh dwelling hound as that would imply you only inhabit small marshes. ;-) )
      Carcinogenic is an interesting word implying causes cancer when in fact only a proportion of those exposed actually get cancer. perhaps it’s not the supposed carcinogen but the person exposed and the material is merely an exacerbating agent.

  10. David. A. Evans says:

    More on topic. My local PoundLand has incandescents in stock. They’re labelled heavy duty and therefore exempt.

  11. jtom says:

    I have seen concerns over mercury accumulating in landfills expressed in other articles. However, I have never seen anyone address the issue of mercury contamination in the event of a disaster. Katrina destroyed (and by ‘destroyed’ I mean nothing left of a house but the concrete slab) an estimated 70,000 homes on the Gulf Coast, and rendered another 380,000 homes uninhabitable. How much mercury would have been released into our fishing areas in the Gulf of Mexico if those homes used CFLs? How much mercury would have been release in Japan after the tsunami, or in towns hit by tornadoes? What will happen in San Fran when another quake hits, and millions of CFLs are broken at the same time? We are going to be compounding one disaster with another.

    • Pointman says:

      Hello and welcome Jtom. As I said in the article, I wasn’t aware of how toxic CFLs were until I researched the article but the horrific but realistic scenarios you outlined, do give one pause for thought. Katrina hitting a CFL-lit New Orleans would have ended the fishing industry in the Gulf forever, because of the bioaccumulation of mercury.

      Pointman

  12. ozspeaksup says:

    I had the damn things in my over bed light fitting.
    one of my small pups ATE the end off of one.
    so by the time I noticed it my bedding all the pups and self were well exposed.
    another one went out, then proceeded to overheat at the ballast, lucky I noticed it turning brown and raced out and turned all power off.
    since then I haunt all secondhand sales for old lamps with useable bulbs:-)
    and
    found the Halogen bulbs, for around $2 ea aus$ the cheap shops have em in varying sizes.
    I see the stupormarkets tend not to carry them at all,
    and the electrical stores charge around $6.
    I can see to read and sew again:-)

    • Pointman says:

      Hello Ozspeaksup and welcome. Proof that we can add pets, as well as children, as potential breakers of CFLs. The toxins are just as lethal to either.

      Pointman

  13. Dave K says:

    Pointman

    Have read your comments on various sites, didn’t realise you had your own (now bookmarked). Have you read the speigel article about German Green problems? The one about these lights is interesting, some companies are burying these things in barrels down old mines. They will remain hazardous forever unlike radioactive elements which eventually decay. The other topic about drains smelling due to water conservation also gave me an ironic chuckle.

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,821396,00.html

    • Pointman says:

      Hello Dave. Yes, I’d read the article when it came out but couldn’t locate it when I was writing this piece, because my old comp died a few weeks back, taking all my links with it. A very interesting read. The whole green society thing in Germany is being seriously questioned there for the first time.

      The number one bestseller over there, is a book called “The Cold Sun”, written by a former activist green who’s seen the light.

      Pointman

  14. Pointman says:

    The more I read about CFLs, the worse they get. Looks like the New Zealand government have very sensibly gone back to incandescents.

    http://www.greenmuze.com/blogs/guest-bloggers/1031-the-dark-side-of-cfls.html

    Pointman

  15. People that miss the good old warm glow of an incandescent can go along to Bunnings and find halogen filament globes that look just like the standard bayonet cap ones. They are available in all sorts of wattages, I use the 40 watt ones, they are prefectly bright enough. The halogen filament is inside its own glass envelope inside the normal pear shaped outer so no chance of accidentally touching it.

  16. Lars P. says:

    “The rush to legislate these bulbs down consumer’s throats, in order to save the planet, without any pause to bottom out both the health and disposal issues, will end up in people being seriously harmed, if not killed by the things.”

    You are quite right Pointman. It is a shame how these CFL have been pushed down through consumer’s throats.
    It is not only the fact that you cannot dispose them easily, even if you bring them back to the store and they pack the used ones nice, it is still a long story until these are really disposed due to the chemicals that they have.
    I heard one can buy “heat bulbs” which are used for heating but have the side effect of emitting light. This might be an alternative for the time if one needs a little warming too.

  17. nzrobin says:

    Hi Pointman,
    Love your work. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Just over a year ago I wrote a submission on this topic to New Zealand’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority. It was this letter that stimulated me to start my blog, kiwithinker.com. I have also recorded their reply. And my reply back to them. The efforts didn’t acheive any noticeable change – but I tried.

    http://www.kiwithinker.com/2011/02/cfls-contain-mercury-submission-to-eeca/

  18. Andrew McRae says:

    Greetings Pointman,
    I have given your post a fair bit of thought.
    My next comment will be rather long, but I hope you’ll interpret it as an attempt at discerning some truth out of the matter.

    I will prepend it only with the observation that people with different mixes of co-habitants will have different risk profiles of bulb breakages.

  19. TonyfromOz says:

    Pointman,

    I hope you don’t mind if I come in here and add a little.

    When these things were first marketed, there was the usual monetary savings meme that went with it, and also, because they supposedly consumed less power, then there would also be savings on emitted CO2.

    Sounds just wonderful really, but not really true.

    I posted on it at the site I contribute to and I hope you’ll forgive me for including a link to one of my own Posts. It’s from almost three years back now but is as relevant now as it was then.

    http://papundits.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/light-bulb-regulation-president-fails-elementary-math/

    Tony.

    • Pointman says:

      Your contribution is always welcome Tony. The whole issue of the downside of CFLs needs to be disseminated far and wide. People are simply not aware of the breakage and disposal problems, especially the latter, so they’ll just chuck them out with all the other household rubbish.

      ps. I can totally recommend Tony’s article as an easily understood breakdown of the marginal financial benefit of switching to CFLs.

      Pointman

    • Twodogs says:

      Our house is full of those circular fluoro-type ones, but they cost around $15 a pop and we go through one every few weeks. A damn side more expensive if you ask me.

  20. onoropu says:

    Depending on the light fittings you have, LED lights might be a better bet.

    They actually have all of the supposed benefits of CFLs with only one downside – they run hot, very hot, like do not put these into an enclosed light fitting. So if you have lights that have good ventilation and are well away from anywhere they can be accidentally touched, they are an option.

  21. Blackswan says:

    Pointman,

    Just when we thought we’ve heard it all, the Flim Flam Man outdoes himself …….

    “TIM Flannery says fillings should be yanked from bodies before cremation … to stop mercury getting into the ocean.”

    http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/national/professor-tim-flannerys-climate-fix-is-now-like-pulling-teeth/story-e6freuzr-1226370406661

    “Professor Flannery told AMA representatives that when mercury tooth fillings, which are benign in solid form, are burned they escape into the atmosphere and mercury blows over the ocean and could infiltrate fish that reach dinner tables.

    He said the solution was for undertakers to remove them, adding: “You just need a set of pliers. It is a $2 solution.”

    This highly-paid demented Climate Commissioner has thus proven that not only is he devoid of respect for the living, he scorns and is prepared to defile the dead. It’s way beyond time when we should all demand an immediate stop to this Climate Madness.

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