Well-intentioned journalists, for simplicity's sake, often frame soon-to-be-enacted efficiency standards as a "ban" on incandescent bulbs in favor of compact fluorescents, or CFLs. Michael Scott Moore is the latest to pick up this narrative, which, unfortunately, tends to sow more confusion than clarity.
Specifically, we're referring to the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which sets minimum efficiency standards for household light bulbs, standards similar to those for refrigerators, dishwashers and other appliances. While the law will, in effect, lead to the phasing out of the most commonly used incandescent bulbs, it does not outlaw one technology in favor of another.
American consumers who don't want to buy CFLs will still be able to purchase advanced incandescent or halogen bulbs that meet the new efficiency rules. Some of these bulbs, depending on manufacturer, are virtually indistinguishable from the older-style exposed filament bulbs. And the law specifically exempts a variety of special-application incandescents, including three-way bulbs, appliance bulbs and others.
There are also, of course, LED bulbs, which many expect will eventually displace both halogens and CFLs as the dominant lighting technology.
But to be fair, Moore's point seems to be more to call attention to unanticipated drawbacks of CFLs. His criticisms, while legitimate, warrant some additional perspective.
To begin with, it seems a bit premature to conclude that CFLs will fail to live up to longevity claims simply because Moore had one single bulb burn out after six months. My equally unscientific anecdotal evidence suggests they will last several years, depending on application.
This bit of faulty logic is less concerning to me than the specter Moore raises over mercury exposure.
It's well known that CFL bulbs contain a small amount of mercury, and Moore correctly notes that the EPA recommends a rather elaborate cleanup procedure in the event one of them breaks. But how much mercury are we really talking about?
Comparing bulbs to thermometers is, at best, misleading. A typical CFL bulb contains anywhere from 2 to 5 mg of mercury, compared to the 500 mg found in a thermometer. And when a bulb is broken, only a small percentage of that mercury is actually released.
While no amount of mercury exposure is healthy, the threat from CFL bulbs is miniscule compared to the amount of mercury that is currently released into the air and water from power plants. Each year, coal plants in the United States emit an amount of mercury equivalent to 8 billion CFL bulbs, and the EPA has estimated that if every single CFL bulb sold in the U.S. in 2009 was broken, it would increase overall mercury emissions a mere 0.12 percent.
In fact, because they use less coal-fired electricity, each CFL bulb used in the United States results in an overall net reduction in mercury emissions, according to the EPA. It stands to reason this would also hold true in Germany, which still relies on coal for a significant percentage of its electricity.
There's a legitimate discussion to be had about the effectiveness of light bulb efficiency standards and the potential for undesired consequences. But it's also important to have a little perspective.