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The Truth About Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs)

written by: Steve Graham•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 3/1/2010

There is a growing battle over compact fluorescent light bulbs, with global-warming skeptics challenging ardent environmentalists. Each side swears by their ideas about the swirl lights, but many claims about compact fluorescent light bulbs are false.

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    Introduction

    There is a culture war going on and it is all about compact fluorescent light bulbs. Al Gore fans hoist them as the torch that will save the world. Glenn Beck fans meanwhile hoard traditional incandescent bulbs for the coming apocalypse in 2014, when Edison’s bulb will be banned. Australia phased out the bulbs this year.

    Each side vehemently argues its case about the bulbs. Some claims are true, some are false and some fall in between.

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    CFLs Flicker and Buzz: False

    The first generation of the bulbs had the same flaws as some fluorescent tube lights, but the claims are no longer true with newer models.

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    CFLs are Slow and Dim: False

    Again, about 20 years ago, the first-generation bulbs were lousy. There was a delay of a few seconds before hitting full brightness, which wasn’t very impressive. Again, these early models are no longer sold. The bulbs also now come in several shapes and colors.

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    CFLs are Expensive: False

    Opponents are correct that compact fluorescent light bulbs cost more upfront than incandescent bulbs. However, the gap is narrowing, and some hardware stores have low bulk pricing for CFLs. Moreover, the lifetime cost is lower. The extra $2 upfront will pay for itself in six months in lower electric bills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The savings then continue for the expected seven-year lifespan of the bulbs.

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    CFLs Will Reverse Global Climate Change: False

    Compact fluorescent light bulbs use about 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs, which means less coal is burned in the power plant to keep the lights on. This leads many environmental campaigners to suggest switching light bulbs will save the world, but scientists argue the main threats of global climate change won’t be reversed without major lifestyle changes all over the world.

    If you are concerned about climate change, replace your light bulbs, but don’t stop there.

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    CFLs Contain Mercury: True

    Compact fluorescent light bulbs contain a small amount of toxic mercury, but manufacturers consistently decrease the mercury levels. The mercury will be released, of course, if the bulb breaks. However, the mercury is not a threat if the bulbs are properly disposed or recycled, which is not as complicated as some suggest.

    If a bulb breaks, simply open a window, sweep up the pieces and put them in a bag. Ideally, you would then save the scraps and take them to a Home Depot or other store that collects CFLs for recycling.

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    The Mercury is an Environmental Hazard: False

    By cutting electric usage, CFLs lead to a smaller net output of mercury in most places. Coal-fired power plants produce the majority of mercury pollution, so if the electricity comes from coal, reducing electricity reduces mercury output.

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    Manufacturing CFLs Harm Workers: True

    Recent news stories publicized the poisoning of Chinese factory workers handling the mercury in making the bulbs. The problem is serious, but it is arguably a problem with Chinese laws and practices more than a problem inherent to CFLs.

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    CFLs are the Only Alternative: False

    Clearly, as noted above, CFLs pose some concerns. However, they will not be the only option after incandescent bulbs are phased out. Experts agree the long-term solution will be light-emitting diodes (or LEDs). The lights already are broadly used in stoplights and industrial applications. They are still prohibitively expensive for widespread use in home fixtures, but that is quickly changing.