Tuesday, 1 May 2007

The CFL Mercury Myths

In recent weeks the CFL has been receiving negative press, most of which is unfortunately generated because lack of knowledge surrounding the disposal of a CFL bulb. Most of these stories relate to individuals who have received incorrect information from hardware stores, supermarkets and even public health officials. One such story is from the Canada Post.

The real truth is yes CFL bulbs do contain mercury, this is an essential element of the bulb and without this it would not operate. Whilst the amount of mercury used in production a CFL lamp is at most 6mg, the average mercury content is 4mg.

Taking the above totals into consideration, mercury emissions by a CFL lamp from electricity consumption over its lifetime is about 2.4mg of mercury. Emissions from an incandescent light bulb is about 10mg for the same period through electricity consumption. Therefore a CFL bulb emits 76% less mercury over the same time period. However, mercury stored in CFL bulbs is perfectly safe unless the glass is in someway damaged, in which case the bulbs can then emit mercury vapour. If the mercury from a CFL was to escape it would total 6.4mg, a 36% reduction on emissions from an incandescent.

One study looking at long tubular fluorescent bulbs found that over a two week period, only 17 to 40 percent of the mercury in the bulb evaporated. The rest remained stuck in the bulb. Roughly one-third of the mercury that evaporated did so in the first eight hours after the breakage; the rest seeped out slowly over the remainder of the study period.

The mercury in a CFL can however be reclaimed and reused through the process of recycling. Collected bulbs are crushed in a machine that uses negative pressure ventilation and a mercury absorbing filter. Therefore if you use a CFL with renewable energy and recycle it, the mercury emmission level is actually negated completely.

Mercury emissions from power plants get into rain clouds and come down in lakes and rivers, poisoning fish and the people who eat them, which has been the contributing factor the recent new recommendations from Health Canada for fish consumption. Coal-fired power plants in the US are the largest source of mercury emissions, spewing 50 tons a year into the air, about 40 percent of the total US mercury emissions. By installing CFL bulbs, you should reduce you mercury emissions from electricity by 14%. If the USA as a nation completely installed CFLs, this should lead to a 7 tonne reduction of mercury emissions per year. Each CFL should last 5 years on average. So that would equate to 35 tonnes of mercury emissions avoided, it would take 8.75 billion CFLs being disposed to landfill to equal the US mercury savings over the same time frame or 30 per US citizen, an almost impossible feat to achieve even with serious neglect.

In the European Union, CFL lamps are one of many products subject to the WEEE recycling scheme. The retail price includes an amount to pay for recycling, and manufacturers and importers have an obligation to collect and recycle CFL lamps. You should contact your local authority for information on how to recycle bulbs in your area.

If you need to dispose of a CLF lamp in the UK, contact your local council environmental services department, you can find their details at Directgov.

If you need to dispose of a CFL bulb in the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency advise you to visit Earth911.org. If details for your area are unavailable please contact your local authority for more information.

If you live near an IKEA store, why not give them a call they offer CFL recycling bins in stores across the world.
In their fiscal 2006 year, IKEA recycled 156,301 pounds of CFLs. Notably, the IKEA CFL recycling program was recently singled out for recognition at a March 20th press conference held by Connecticut State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Blumenthal is trying to persuade other big chain stores to do the same.

If you should break a CFL, please clean up with care following these steps;
  1. Do not allow children or pregnant women to enter the affected area
  2. Open windows and allow air to circulate to the affected area
  3. First sweep up all of the glass fragments and phosphor powder (do not vacuum)
  4. Then place in a plastic bag
  5. Wipe the area with a damp paper towel to pick up stray shards of glass or fine particles
  6. Place the used towel in the plastic bag as well
  7. For proper disposal of a broken CFL bulb, contact your local authority for a community household hazardous waste collection

"A CFL containing 5 mg of mercury breaks in your child’s bedroom that has a volume of about 25 m3 (which corresponds to a medium sized bedroom). The entire 5 mg of mercury vaporizes immediately (an unlikely occurrence), resulting in an airborne mercury concentration in this room of 0.2 mg/m3. This concentration will decrease with time, as air in the room leaves and is replaced by air from outside or from a different room. As a result, concentrations of mercury in the room will likely approach zero after about an hour or so. Under these relatively conservative assumptions, this level and duration of mercury exposure is not likely to be dangerous, as it is lower than the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard of 0.05 mg/m3 of metallic mercury vapor averaged over eight hours."
Professor Sue MacIntosh, Professor of Environmental Health, Harvard University

So don't be put off by purchasing CFLs because they are good for your pocket and the environment, just be slighty more cautious with handling and enjoy the benefits of a 14% reduction in energy costs.


Environmental Protection Agency
Energy Saving Trust
Wikipedia: CFLs
Health & Energy Company
Ministry of Energy, Canada


allatti2d said...

I just learned about mercury in CFLs (or any fluorescent bulbs, for that matter), and I was really shocked to find out. I've been doing research today, as soon as I found out about it.

I found a rather alarming problem with your article in relation to my research, however.

You state in your article, "Taking the above totals into consideration, mercury emissions by a CFL lamp from electricity consumption over its lifetime is about 2.4mg of mercury. Emissions from an incandescent light bulb is about 10mg. Therefore a CFL bulb emits 76% less mercury over the same time period. However, mercury stored in CFL bulbs is perfectly safe unless the glass is in someway damaged, in which case the bulbs can then emit mercury vapour. If the mercury from a CFL was to escape it would total 6.4mg, a 36% reduction on emissions from an incandescent."

From what I have learned, incandescent bulbs contain NO mercury, zero. The emissions are created from coal during production of the bulbs. I take your figures to mean that based on production of a single incandescent bulb, 10 mg of mercury is released into the earth's atmosphere.

Compare that with 3-6 milligrams of mercury contained in a single CFL. When broken, which happens in homes all the time (and happens in landfills all the time), toxic mercury vapor is released into a small room in a small house that does not have the openness of a production emissions site.

According to my research, mercury is toxic to an adult at levels above 5.8 micrograms/litre, or 0.1 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. I couldn't believe this -- I had to keep on googling to confirm this. A microgram is 1/1000 of a milligram. This is major toxicity from what I see.

Since I'm new to this subject, I sure hope I'm misreading the numbers or that I'm wrong about all this. It's very scary to think that here in the U.S. some cities are considering mandating the use of CFLs and banning incandescents altogether.

It's like comparing apples to oranges here with CFLs vs. incandescents when it comes to mercury emissions. While the reduction of incandescents may be positive on a global emissions scale, the use of CFLs is potentially lethal on a single family home scale, especially when there are children around. And there's also the leaching of the mercury into the earth and groundwater, which is both inevitable and problematic on a global scale.

Sorry this is so long, but one other point... not a SINGLE one of the packages containing my CFLs say that the bulbs contain mercury or that the bulbs should be safely disposed of or recycled. This needs to change, like yesterday.

I'm still researching this subject, and hope to learn a lot more. Hopefully I'll learn something that will calm me down, not alarm me more.

Please email me if possible to correct any errors on my part (I so pray that I'm wrong) or at least to open some discussion about this. I just found out I'll be having a grandchild in December, and I'm about to warn my daughter about CFLs.

allatti2d said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
support@howtosaveenergy.co.uk said...


From what I have learned, incandescent bulbs contain NO mercury, zero. The emissions are created from coal during production of the bulbs. I take your figures to mean that based on production of a single incandescent bulb, 10 mg of mercury is released into the earth's atmosphere.

You would be correct that incandescent bulbs contain no mercury. The 10mg of mercury would be released from the burning of fossil fuels in that statement.

According to my research, mercury is toxic to an adult at levels above 5.8 micrograms/litre, or 0.1 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. I couldn't believe this -- I had to keep on googling to confirm this. A microgram is 1/1000 of a milligram. This is major toxicity from what I see.

Also the research that you have compiled would be correct that the advised upper limits of mercury exposure per kilogram of body weight would be 0.1mg. Mercury can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. When a CFL bulb breaks the mercury which is contained inside will start to vaporise slowly. This is then disperses around the room. I think this statement by Professor Sue MacIntosh, Professor of Environmental Health, Harvard University can better sum up how the mercury disperses;

"A CFL containing 5 mg of mercury breaks in your child’s bedroom that has a volume of about 25 m3 (which corresponds to a medium sized bedroom). The entire 5 mg of mercury vaporizes immediately (an unlikely occurrence), resulting in an airborne mercury concentration in this room of 0.2 mg/m3. This concentration will decrease with time, as air in the room leaves and is replaced by air from outside or from a different room. As a result, concentrations of mercury in the room will likely approach zero after about an hour or so. Under these relatively conservative assumptions, this level and duration of mercury exposure is not likely to be dangerous, as it is lower than the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard of 0.05 mg/m3 of metallic mercury vapor averaged over eight hours."

This really means that it is like the mercury vapor is being diluted with air, the more air the lower the concentration, and within an hour through this the concentration should be almost 0mg. If you should break a CFL bulb its best to follow the instructions in the article. Opening the window first will allow air to transfer more efficiently.

You should not be too alarmed as many household items contain substantially higher amounts of mercury, such as thermometers, thermostats and barometers. Mercury is also used in fillings put in your teeth by the dentist, and mercury compounds are found in some over-the-counter drugs, including topical antiseptics, stimulant laxatives, diaper-rash ointment, eye drops, and nasal sprays.

Many families with pregnant women and small children do not use CFLs, as with small children the potential for breaking CFLs is more likely. However CFL bulbs are normally made with a higher quality and more durable glass to help to prevent breakage.

The unfortunate compromise is that incandescent through fossil fuel burning emit mercury, which then falls back to earth and finds its way into lakes and rivers, the same would happen with CFLs which were sent to landfill or broken in the home. This is then absorbed by fish and other seafood, and can be passed to us through consumption of seafood. Not to alarm you any further, the FDA recommend that women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant within the next one or two years, as well as young children avoid eating more than 6 ounces (one average meal) of fish per week due to currently levels of mercury in fish.

not a SINGLE one of the packages containing my CFLs say that the bulbs contain mercury or that the bulbs should be safely disposed of or recycled. This needs to change, like yesterday.

I do agree that packaging of CFLs is very uninformative and that really needs to change, many people are unaware that CFLs contain mercury, and that they should be recycled properly. I am aware some companies do specify the amount of mercury contained in the bulb, but this is a relative few. If there was these figures it would also allow more informed choices. As some bulbs actually contain as low as 1mg of mercury, with their competitors level three or four times as high. I think more information needs to be passed to consumers, and it cant come just on a light bulb box, 99% of people don't read the box.

In all CFLs should not pose a risk to personal health in the home, it would be a rare occasion when one would break (I can't remember the last time I broke a bulb), however by following the instructions in the article if this should occur you will be exposed to the minimum.

allatti2d said...

Thank you Admin.

Don't you think the proportions are a big concern, as in milligrams (in bulbs) vs. micrograms (how the toxicity is measured)? I still can't figure out how they would be safe; even if 1 milligram leaked out, that's 1,000 micrograms, a tiny fraction of which can be lethal to an adult.

I no longer have glass thermometers in my home. Nor do the other things you mention (such as thermostats) pose a serious breakage/spillage problem. My concern of course is for my pregnant daughter and young children, and for most people who are ignorant about this danger, like I was.

If .2 mg/m3 of mercury vapor is dispersed in a medium-sized room, that is 200 micrograms of vapor in the 25 cubic meter room. If one tenth of a single microgram of mercury is toxic to an adult, how can 200 micrograms be safe, even if it disperses over a few hours? If my math is correct, that .2 mg/m3 of mercury is TWO-THOUSAND TIMES THE SAFE AMOUNT.

Isn't that alarming? What's wrong here?

Clogging up the air and earth and water with improperly disposed mercury is bad over the long term globally, but accidentally breaking a CFL in a bedroom or ignorantly tossing it into the kitchen trash like the old bulbs where it most likely breaks is a short-term tragedy, a small-scale VERY toxic spill, according to these figures.

Do my concerns make sense to you? Do you have other data?

Thanks for your time and energy (no pun intended!).

Pegasus said...

i know that CFL need mercury vapor to generate the ionized gas inside the vacuum tube... this ionized gas is the basis of creating the light....

But why on earth would an incandescent lamp require any mercury.... the filament needs tungsten dude....

support@howtosaveenergy.co.uk said...

It is true that an incandescent emits very little mercury in production, this figure is emissions from electricity consumption. I have amended the article to make this more clear.

support@howtosaveenergy.co.uk said...


After your second email it began to make me think, I had come across the same evidence as you and came to the same conclusion in my mind that you did, however I let it go thinking I calculated something wrong, however after your email I have thought about this further and tried to find further evidence. Your concerns do certainly make sense, and more so due the potential effects of mercury on that of pregnant women.

After several hours of searching, I have some evidence on why it is safe within OSHA levels. I have also found some evidence which in context of that of a CFL bulb compared to other sources of mercury makes interesting reading. In summarising the data that I have found, it appears to me from the data, it is all on how the body absorbs mercury, the speed of vaporisation, the form it is in and the type of mercury (ie compound or pure) it is.

It would seem the guide level of the EPA uses a RfD of 0.1 µg/kg body weight/day as an exposure without recognized adverse effects, after further research this relates to a mercury compound, methylmercury, this is a highly toxic compound of mercury. This is created from mercury interacting with bacteria in the environment, after it has been incorrectly disposed, or fallen back to earth from coal fired power plants. This is also the form of mercury which affect fish, and has lead to the reductions in recommended intake of fish. However mercury in its pure element form such as that in CLFs is not as harmful as methylmercury. An example of how toxic methylmercury is that from 1932 to 1968 methyl mercury was released into the sea around the city of Minamata in Kumamoto prefecture, Japan. The toxin bioaccumulated in fish, which when eaten by the local population caused the largest case of mercury poisoning known. Minamata disease caused the deaths of over 1000 people and permanently disabled a great many more.

Therefore the only real figure I have found at the moment for toxicity in humans from element mecury vapour would be the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard of 0.05 mg/m3 of metallic mercury vapor averaged over eight hours. However I will keep looking for other standards.

Mercury is most readily absorbed to the body through breathing in the vapour produced. Other forms of absorption are through the skin and also by ingestion. The following are a few key points from the document (http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp46-c5.pdf);

Dental amalgams may contain 43–54% elemental mercury (DHHS 1993). A single amalgam filling with an , average surface area of 0.4 cm2 has been estimated to release as much as 15 μg mercury/day, primarily , through mechanical wear and evaporation, but also through dissolution into saliva (Lorscheider et al. 1995). , The rate of release is influenced by chewing, bruxism (grinding of teeth) food consumption, tooth brushing, , and the intake of hot beverages (Weiner and Nylander 1995). For the average individual with eight occlusal , amalgam fillings, 120 μg of mercury could be released daily into the mouth, and a portion of that , swallowed or inhaled (Lorscheider et al. 1995). Experimental results regarding estimated daily dose of , inhaled mercury vapor released from dental amalgam restorations are few and contradictory (Berglund 1990). More recently, Björkman et al. (1997) reported that approximately 80% of inhaled mercury from , dental amalgams is absorbed (Björkman et al. 1997)

I have stated this paragraph, as the average dental amalgam contains about 500mg of mercury, this is about the same as a thermometer and the same as 100 to 125 CFL bulbs, however it only releases 15 μg mercury/day. In the document there are many different studies quoted, this is just one at random. But taking the amount in the filling and the amount of mercury released per day, every day it would appear that in comparison, exposure from a CFL would be actually alot less than you would expect, it would also be a relatively short-term exposure.

Herbal balls are , aromatic, malleable, earth-toned, roughly spherical, hand-rolled mixtures primarily composed of herbs and , honey that are used to make medicinal teas. These herbal balls are used as a self-medication for a wide , variety of conditions, including fever, rheumatism, apoplexy, and cataracts. Herbal balls similar to those , analyzed are readily available in specialty markets throughout the United States. Mercury (probably mercury sulfide) was detected in 8 of the 9 herbal balls tested. The recommended adult dose for the herbal , balls is two per day. Ingesting two herbal balls could theoretically provide a dose of up to 1,200 mg of ,mercury. (Page 429 of Report / Page 51 of Document). In theory this is 240 to 300 times the amount of mercury found in a CFL and are still legally sold.

Whilst all this information does not prove that a CFL is safe if broken, it does appear that it is alot safer than the levels of mercury we are subjected to on a daily basis, even the levels of mercury in a dentists surgery (upto 69μg mercury/m3) can be 2300 times that of your living room at home. Samples of pituitary gland tissue from autopsies of 8 dental staff and 27 control individuals in Sweden, reported median mercury concentrations of 815 μg/kg (ppb) wet weight (range, 135–4,040 μg/kg) in , pituitary tissue of dental staff (7 dentists and 1 dental assistant), as compared to a median of 23 μg/kg (wet weight) in 27 individuals from the general population. None of the dental staff had been working , immediately prior to their deaths, and in several cases, more than a decade had passed since the cessation of , their clinical work. From this study it would appear that those in the dentistry profession are highly susceptible to the effects of mercury. In these instances it would appear that you can live a healthy life even after excessive levels of mercury exposure.

I think in reality it the choice of CFLs should be a personal decision, and if you feel uncomfortable you should have the choice not to use CFLs, in some cases incandescent bulbs are actually more environmentally friendly than CFLs using coal fired power plants, such as an off grid 100% renewable electricity source. However the government should do more to address the public and their fears on CFLs by offering simple to understand evidence and clear evidence of why it is safe.

Energy Saver

allatti2d said...

Thank you again for your hard work and research into this matter. Unfortunately I don't have time to investigate so thoroughly, as I know most people don't, which is why we rely on people like you and a handful of others to get to the truth.

Honestly, I don't think government agencies have all the information or knowledge regarding the safety of mercury, and there are differing reports wherever you look, it seems.

One report I read on my first day of research told me that mercury is much more dangerous in some compound forms, as you mentioned, and was specifically most dangerous when inhaled or infected through the skin. This same report said that ingestion of mercury, I think in its pure form, is not very dangerous, which is why there is some controversy over people with amalgam fillings.

I'll have to go back through that data and review those reports, as well as find some corroborating reports to support the arguments I first found.

What stuck out to me was the mention in your original article that mercury from CFLs was released as a vapor when the bulb breaks; since inhaling mercury vapor was identified as a health problem, along with skin exposure in having to clean up a broken bulb (not to mention the dire warnings to NOT vacuum it up almost everywhere I read), the comparitively huge quantity of mercury contained in a single CFL really alarmed me.

I'm glad you mentioned that you initially had trouble reconciling what you had read in terms of measurements, as I had. I think you and I are correct to be alarmed, as most people wouldn't catch the difference -- how many people know what a microgram is, and how many of them make up a milligram? I certainly didn't until I looked it up.

Again, thank you for your research, and sharing your information with me and the rest of the world. I will continue to investigate as time allows, and any further information I find will be reported here, if you don't mind. I'm pasting much of the conversation here on my own personal myspace blog to keep myself on top of disseminating the information.

Capt. Jack Sparrow said...

Thanks for your comment to my blog! I enjoyed your more detailed post about CFLs....
Best of luck and health,
Capt. Jack Sparrow

Matthew said...

Thank you for the informative article - very helpful in knowing how to dispose of them correctly. However, I would dispute some of your statistics.

If US power plants spew 50 tons of mercury into the air, and CFLs would reduce emissions by 14%...

It would reduce the emissions by 7 tons only if 100% of the power generated by all the stations were used to power nothing but light bulbs.

According to a 2005 Department of Energy report, lighting represents 8.8% of household electricity use.

Not even taking into account industry usage, this means the 7 ton saving is closer to 5/8ths of a ton.

support@howtosaveenergy.co.uk said...

There are variations between published details of energy consumption, at the time of writing I used a statement by Paul Waide, a Senior Policy Analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA) "Nineteen percent of global electricity generation is taken for lighting". From this it was concluded that 14% could be the total reduction in electricity use from implementing Energy Saving Lightbulbs. However, other studies have issued more conservative figures from 8 - 11% for the reduction in usage of electricity.

This would be a similar reduction in electricity production and thus mercury emissions should also drop in a uniform way.

Anonymous said...

LED lights are really where we should be headed.

Gosh, we just don't need more mercury pollution. Recycling programs are not set up in every town in every state to handle the CFLs; which means these bulbs will be breaking in the trash, releasing more mercury into the environment.

Joe LED said...

With any CFL or incandescent light or (LED for that matter) the problem is what toxic materials are in the product, not the products of the energy that it uses.
I live by a hydroelectric plant and my electricity is produced there. Then the incandescent light bulb that is burning on my desk has Zero mercury emissions. The CFL still has Mercury in it and that Mercury will be released into the environment when it hits the landfill.
Your production facts are quite skewed also.
CFL's require more energy to manufacture, Contain Lead, Mercury, and Phosphorus. There is a higher reject rate with the production of with CFL's and since they contain hazardous materials, it is easier to dispose of them than recycle them (incandescent bulbs are easier to recycle)
You forget that in production of CFL’s the equipment, the workers and their families are all exposed to the toxic effects of mercury. China (the main producer of CFL’s) has no EPA standards so the amount of pollution produced in the production is incalculable. China has one coal plant a week coming on line with no air quality standards. That means more mercury, uranium, lead, nickel arsenic and other toxic metals are emitted without regulation and that air does not stay in China. The waste water and other by products are dumped into the watershed (including the waste Mercury) with no repercussions. That water ends up in the oceans also.
The Incandescent bulb is in many ways easier on the environment than CFL’s. They also are easier on electrical equipment like your computer, stereo and T.V. Incandescent bulbs have four or five parts depending on the type with glass being the largest part. (Simple to crush and recycle). CFL’s have over 30 parts are not easy to break up and the glass is contaminated with mercury and the plastic is not recyclable. CFL’s produce harmonics of the 60 hertz base frequency AC power. This is the flickering that you see with all fluorescent lighting. This harmonic flickering is at 2 times the base frequency of 120 times per second. It is the cause of the humm you hear in your speakers when your fluorescent lighting is on. Why your computer may not process as fast due to the timing circuits being run of ac power. One CFL going bad (burning out) in your household or your next door neighbors house can affect all the equipment in your house.
Lastly, for many people (including myself) CFL’s can cause headaches, and in some cases Migraines and seizures.
If you really want to save money use task lighting.
Better yet, invest in solid state lighting (LED) lighting made in the USA or some other country that has EPA standards. Don’t buy from counties that have no EPA (China, India) due to their poor production standards. The cost is higher they will last longer, burn cooler, have a cleaner light with no flickering and their production pollution footprint is significantly lower since LEDs contain no mercury and no lead.
So if you really do want to reduce your pollution foot print, Keep your old light bulbs running until you can make the switch to solid state LED lighting. They last longer (50,000 to 100,000 hours for a LED light compared to 7500 hours for a CFL) Use less energy that anything else, and when the finally burn out can be recycled with a low impact to the environment.

support@howtosaveenergy.co.uk said...

I agree with some of your points outlined, including your statement on energy consumption in manufacture, that one CFL is over and above that of an ordinary lightbulb. However CFLs last upto 12 times longer, are often smaller in size (stick style), this in comparison means the energy expended in transportation is greatly reduced.

I agree that your incandecent bulb is zero emissions and being powered by hydroelectricity, I just wish I was able to install more renewable energy at my own city home.

As regard to CFL recycling it is true that if they are landfilled, mercury will leach out into the soil. Recycling of CFLs in general is not a complicated task and can fully recover the mercury, but in the US and UK locations for recycling are limited and this does need to change drastically, as well as educating the public as to the fact that mercury is contained in the bulbs in the first place.

I do agree CFLs really are not the future, LEDs (if you can afford them) are the real way forward. They are also becoming as cheap as CFLs, which is really great, I was actually looking at some today for the halogen bulbs in my bathroom and kitchen. They use as low as 1.6W each and really are the energy saving bulbs. In the UK you can purchase from B&Q for only £4 a bulb and in the US from websites for as low as $10 a bulb.

They should overall save about 18% off your energy bills, I will be writting about LEDs in a future post, which has been planned but I have procrastinated.

support@howtosaveenergy.co.uk said...

Joe LED has add a blog reaction to this post;



Sorry in referece to my reply when I suggested CFLs lasted 12 times longer, this was in reply to incandescents. LEDs over incandescents would last 125 times longer, and in some cases even more. In this point I was merely trying to suggest that CLFs carbon footprint in manufacture and shipping, per lifetime hour is less than that of incandescents. Again the Carbon Footprint would be even lower with LED bulbs probably as much as 20 to 25 times lower per lifetime hour than CFLs.

I am also aware LED lights are not halogens, I was looking for LEDs to replace my halogen lights as they can easily be switched to LEDs, which is another benefit of LEDs over CFLs, which was not entirely clear from my comment.

I support CFLs over incandescents (if used responsibly), but support LEDs over CFLs until the next technology that supersedes LEDs.

The main purpose of the original post was to counter the myth that breaking a CFL was an "expensive" and "potentially lethal" and also to highlight the need for recycling of CFLs, which the majority of the public are unaware is a requirement.

The facts from the post regarding mercury emissions from incandescent bulbs are from the Environmental Protection Agency. Further facts are from a report sent to Congress regarding associated health risks from Mercury.

Joe LED said...

As we all know the EPA is run by a bunch of people that have their own agenda that in the end supports groups that have special interests that are funded from non-US interests.
In the end it all boils down to sustainable power sources’. Wind power, geothermal, nuclear, solar, and wave generation. Provide the least damage to the environment.
I did not mention hydroelectric and ethanol for two reasons. Both provide diminishing returns as seen by the slow filling of and dam made lake by slit and destruction of large amounts of terrestrial biomass and in the case of ethanol the widespread destruction of the rain forests (amazing you don’t hear about that) to provide corn for fuel.
The second reason why I personally do not like hydroelectric power and ethanol is the fact that they are the largest government funded projects that produce energy and the consumer has not seen any reduction in their energy costs. Seems to me that if you invest in something you should see a reward for your investment
Not an increase in your energy costs.

Kate said...

I have referenced your post at my blog. Thank you for the well presented information. Here is the link: http://littlepaths.vox.com/library/post/my-first-cfl.html

Ed said...

Here’s a short critique of the bogus argument that there will be a reduction in toxic mercury into the environment with CFL’s due to the energy reduction from coal plants: (1) The EPA figures are incorrect for several reasons. The basic one is that they assume 100% of electricity in the US is from coal plants. Not true. 50% of electricity does not come from coal plants in the US and coal plants are now mandated to reduce their mercury emissions by between 70% and 90% in the next several years.
(2) Places like California produce very little energy from coal plants, so CFL energy reductions will not cut much mercury there.
(3) The 5mg of mercury generally claimed for CFL’s is largely a goal and not the current reality which can be 300% to 600% higher, depending on the manufacturer. The EPA assumes just 4mg.
(4) CFL’s are made in China with energy from mostly very dirty coal plants that emit much more mercury than US coal plants.
(5) CFL’s made in China spill as much mercury into the environment as goes into the CFL’s.
(6) CFL’s are delivered here on ships using bunker oil, the worst mercury producer of the fuel oils. Incandescent bulbs are still almost all made in the US.
(7) There is no recycling program in place or planned that could handle the number of CFL’s proposed. And after many years, even the industrial recycling programs only handle 25% of the mercury from fluorescent lights.
(8) It is likely that if any major recycling program is set up, the CFL’s will be shipped back to China for reprocessing.
Thus, a massive CFL program will put a massive amount of toxic mercury into the environment and very likely into our kid’s bodies. And the EPA says that a sixth of them already have too much mercury in them. Given the danger, it might be wise to believe the EPA in this case.

admin said...

I do agree with some of the issues that you have raised.

(1) It is true that these assumptions are based on 100% coal fired power supply. EPA figures state that in 2005, coal fired power made up 49.7% of the US make up of power generation. One also could make a point that those with CFLs were to convert back to incandescents this additional power use would need to be made up from mainly non renewable sources, and if those with incandescents were to convert to CFLs, this would alter the energy generation make up, reducing coal use further, and increasing the proportion of renewables in the generation make up.

The mercury emissions rule to reduce 70 to 90% of mercury is an emissions trading scheme, power plants continue emitting mercury in amounts that pose health hazards to humans. Power companies support the EPA's Clean Air Mercury Rule because it gives them until 2018 to reduce total mercury emissions to 15 tons a year from the current level of about 48 tons.

(2) Whilst again the make up of energy in California is predominently from non coal fired plants. By returning to incandescents there will be an immediate increase in power consumption, this gap will likely be filled by coal fired power-plants, similarly those in California, if they were to use CFLs this would reduce their reliance on the little energy they receive from coal fired power plants.

(3) CFLs are available in mercury content levels from 1.25mg to 25mg. The average being 5mg (EPA) and 3mg (Energy Star Canada). Some manufactures have low mercury CFLs available with 1mg of mercury content. But there is certainly a need for greater information on packets outlining the mercury content of CFL bulbs.

(4) & (5) It is true that the majority (about 85%) of all CFLs are made in China. China's use of coal is about 80%, with only 15% of coal fired power plants installing desulphization tech. China emits about 673g of CO2 per kWh.

I am unable to comment on the mercury spill during manfacture as I am not aware of such incidents. Could you cite your source for this information as I would be interested to read it.

(6) In fact shipping is more likely to be environmentally friendly than that of alternatives such as rail or road within the USA, even travelling from China. Added with the lengthened life of CFLs this means CFLs have a volume to life hour substaintially less than incandescents.

(7) Whilst recycling programs lag, and many more are planned currently their is inadequate recycling facilities. This needs to improve. Companies like Ikea have provided a real solution to CFL recycling and this should be taken as a model for a widespread program.

In Europe CFLs are covered under WEEE which funds a widespread program forcing retailers to take back CFLs for recycling free of charge.

Recycling a CFL bulb is a simple proceedure and ensures mercury does not escape, the mercury can be stored for reuse.

CFLs I believe are a viable alternative to incandescents if used correctly and are recycled. But the industry needs to create a viable program and inform the public of the need to recycle before the first major wave of CFL bulbs bite the dust and go to the landfill.

admin said...

Of course LEDs are better though.

lee said...

Some things to consider:

1) 52%-54% of the electricity produced in the US is from coal. The rest of our sources produce
around 20% of the mercury produced by coal generation. The mercury from these other sources is embodied in the concrete and steel used to make the plants. For example, nuclear plants in the US
have typically required 10 years of continuous generation to break even with the kWh value used to build them. They are licensed for 20-30 years, so their Hg impact is 1/2 to 1/3 as great as coal gen. Hydro is another big user of power, but their lives are so long that very little mercury per kWh is amortized. Natural gas gen has very little mercury (less than 1/20th of coal per kWh). With these numbers in mind, the oft-quoted value of 10mg of mercury for incandescents
over five years becomes 6.3mg. For the CFL, where 4mg is intrinsic to the device and 2.4mg is said to be used used in 5 years, the total amount becomes 5.5mg. The real difference on this basis alone is (6.3-5.5)/6.3*100%= 13% reduction from CFL's. So far, CFL's are still ahead.

But wait- there's more.

2) Over 90% of the purified mercury used in CFL's comes from cinnebar. 1/3 of the world's supply is produced in South America. For every ounce of mercury recovered, another ounce goes in to the rivers and land. For most of the rest of the world's supply (largely in China and Russia) the recovery rates are closer to 90%. This places the average loss to the environment at around .4 ounces per ounce of recovered mercury. Thus the 4mg of mercury in the CFL's becomes 5.6mg, for a total mercury consumption of 6.6mg over five years, more than the incandescent.

But wait- there's even more.

3) CFL's and incandescents suffer from shortened average lifetimes if the light is not used continuously. Research at Lawrence Livermore Labs indicated a whopping 50% reduction in lifetime for CFL's compared to the rated lifetime when the lights were turned off and then back on every hour, and an incredible 85% reduction in life when switched off and on every half hour. Incandescents suffer a reduction, but the loss is about 20% for the one hour interval and under 25% for the half hour interval case. If a CFL that might last 5 years is considered, then a 50% reduction means the embodied mercury must be marked up to (5.6mg)*2+1mg from energy usage, or 12.2mg.

Ouch. And....there's....more....

The value for the incandescents remains the same at 6.3mg. CFL's use about 436% more mercury than incandescents. This is not looking pretty.

But wait- we're not done. Let's look at some good things:

4) The energy used to make CFL's compared to incandescents is anyone's guess. The comment I would make is the energy required to manufacture each one is a fraction of the energy used during its life as evidenced by the cost of the power each one uses over its life compared to the upfront costs. Let's pick a value of 20% of the retail cost as an estimate of the energy embodied. This means that, accounting for the 50% lifetime reduction for the CFL, it will last six times longer than the incandescent will. The CFL's cost can be adjusted (using the 50% of life to failure correction) at 12x the cost of incandescents. If 20% is due to energ investments for both, then it looks like they use roughly the same amount of energy over any time period overall.


The math is simple. The stats are readily available from this forum and from GE's website, Wikipedia, and other readily google-able sources. The take away lesson here is clear: If you use CFL's in situations where they get turned on and stay on, you come out ahead on energy, but not on mercury. If you use them as the average person does, you likely come out even on energy, and way, way worse on mercury. Whether or not the mercury is all put into the environment harmfully or sequestered as argued
above is important to consider, but the story here is that even if 80% or even 100% of the mercury is sequestered from CFL's, the amount lost to extracting mercury is equivalent or greater and just as harmful) as mercury from coal gen.

The way forward is LED's--period. They have their own issues, but I'd deal with their problems any day before I would join the CFL lovefest.

Ed said...

Thank you, Lee. Great to see there’s at least one other person out there tying to take a lifecycle, objective view of the CFL/mercury issue. If you review my post above you might find a few other factors that need to be considered in the calculations that will make the mercury balance even more negative for the CFL’s. Of major importance is the China card. Given Chinese production conditions and their very dirty power mix, you’ll find that other pollutants such as SO2 and the Nitrogen Oxides will likely also increase.

And in many states with relatively clean power production such as California, there maybe little CO2 savings, if any, even if you leave the CFL’s on without shortening their life and/or efficiency with too often on-and-off switching, dimmers, electronic controls, fixture enclosures, exposure to moisture, high and low temperatures, etc.

Admin, don’t know where you got your 673 mg/KWH for CO2 from power generation in China. I found figures in the 850 mg/KWH to 950 mg/KWH plus 15% to 25% for indirect CO2 emissions. Google a little. Since the figure for the US is in the 600 mg/KWH to 625 mg/KWH range for our power mix, how can you come up with such a low figure for China given the fact that their coal plants are much dirtier and less efficent than ours and they get about 80% of their power from these plants? Your figure would imply that Chinese coal plants are CLEANER than US coal plants.

My source on the spillage of mercury in the manufacture of CFL’s in China is from an environmental lighting expert and co-author of “Responsible Purchasing Guide – Lighting,” Responsible Purchasing Network, November 2007. Because of the problem of mercury spill due to sloppy production in China, a big point is made of calling for encapsulated mercury being mandatory for CFL production. You will also find this as part of the proposed Sierra Club CFL Guidance as well as one of the proposed criteria for Green Seal certification. But it’s not an Energy Star criterion. Thus, the chances are high that most all CFL’s from China in any mass market program here will still come from plants that spill about as much mercury into the environment as go into the CFL’s.

While relatively little energy is used per CFL for shipping, it is still more for one CFL from China than 10 incandescent bulbs from the Midwest. Also, Friends of the Earth and some stats I’ve seen on Google say that bunker oil used for ships is 1,000 times dirtier than conventional transportation fuel. A thousand times a little can be an awful lot of pollution.

Another overlooked fact. New production facilities for CFL’s in China will require lots of new materials and energy, mostly from very dirty sources. Ongoing power requirements will likely speedup the construction of new dirty power plants there. Since residential lighting use is mostly at off-peek hours, any savings from CFL’s will not forestall the construction of new power plants here or contribute to their closure. Power plant need is determined by peek demand, not off-peek demand. There goes one more fallacious argument for CFL’s.

The European WEEE recycling goal is 50% with another 20% for recapture. This is their GOAL, not the reality. Europe is not much better yet than us in recycling residential CFL’s at a few to several percent. It is amazing to me how much false hope advocates for CFL’s put in recycling. They all seem willing to flood the environment with BILLIONS of CFL’s BEFORE there is any effective recycling program in place. And as Lee indicated, under some pretty reasonable assumptions, even if ALL the mercury was recycled, CFL’s would put more mercury into the environment than incandescent bulbs on a lifecycle basis.

And the much heralded take-back program at Ikea? Go over there sometime and look at the CFL recycling bins. You’ll find that about two-thirds are incandescent bulbs and the bins have open tops which allow mercury vapors from broken CFL’s out. In any case, the number recycled is a small fraction of the number sold. And last I heard, the environmentally conscious City of Seattle requires you to recycle CFL’s but you have to call and make an appointment to do so.

The only saving grace for CFL’s would be if mercury was not actually bad for the environment and our kids after all. But I for one would like to hold to the Precautionary Principle on this and just skip the damn things and move on to LED’s in a few to several years.

ABQ said...

A friend of mine told me that it takes more energy to make a CFL than you save using one. Anyone have any facts to back this up or dispute it?

admin said...

I have too heard of this rumour or similar ones, but thanks to research on carbon footprints by the Carbon Trust in the UK. I can confirm that this is not the case.

The evidence can be found in a report at this link;


I think it will be enlightening and crush the rumours about the energy used in production of CFLs.

jp said...

Dear all

Thanks to all of you who took all the pain and published the various facts and figures.

Anonymous said...

Actually Lee, mercury comes from Cinnabar and not Cinnebar.
Cinnebar is a soft wood and Cinnabar is a mineral containing mercury sulphide. The only mine in South America is in Peru. And the largest reservoir of mercury is in Spain at Almadén. The mine is now closed, but still supplies.
Also there are no official mines in Russia, there is one in Serbia ,and about 5 in the USA. And one in the Phillipines. So I think your argument may need tweaking a bit.

Anonymous said...

You are praising the use of CFLs and how they reduce energy and the mercury issue is overblown. However, the end of your article states thatif you break one, you have hazardous waste problem. If I have a hazardous waste problem, the issue is not overblown. There is no way to get around the fact that if a bulb is broken I have released mercury into my house and have to begin a twelve step process to clean it up. And if I do it wrong, I could be exposing a lot people to mercury. I would rather consume a little more energy with an incandescent bulb (which cost between 25 cents and 50 cents) and uses more energy than a more expensive CFL that is a source of hazardous waste.

Anonymous said...

I suck coz I only appear to be able to think of one joke and one joke alone...

Why did the plane crash into the house????


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Anonymous said...

Just popping in to say nice site.

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