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Spotlight On Energy-saving Bulbs

The Kentucky Living magazine readers’ letters printed here match questions being raised around the country about compact fluorescent light bulbs. We’re devoting extensive coverage to those issues because of the way they bring the broad, national debate over energy into your home in a way that allows you to take action on your use of electricity.

Below the following letters, you’ll find an article on the disposal of compact fluorescent bulbs. Editorial comment appears in the From the Editor column. An in-depth technical discussion of all the points raised in the letters can be found in the Keyword Exclusive supplement.

Kentucky Living will continue to cover developments related to compact fluorescent lights in future issues.


New bulb downsides
While singing the praises of the “new lightbulb” in the From the Editor column in June, Mr. Wesslund left out the downsides. They contain mercury. Mercury poisoning causes serious problems to those around the pollutant. Another downside is that none are made in the good old USA. All I have seen are made in China where controls on pollutants are lax. These bulbs may last longer and use less energy, but what do we sacrifice?
Alma Medley

Fluorescent problems
Our house has more than 100 lights, so over the past year I purchased 12 or more of the compact fluorescent bulbs praised in the From the Editor column in June. When I began to have burnouts, I e-mailed GE.

An issue you failed to address is where these can be used. More than half the applications in our home do not allow these to be used. This is not to mention the disposal of the burned-out products, since they contain mercury.

The cure can be worse than the problem. GE’s list of uses that could reduce the bulb’s life span includes using them on dimmers, electronic timers, photocell fixtures, enclosed fixtures, outdoors, or where there might be vibrations such as ceiling fans or garage door fixtures.
Stephen Thomas

Don’t re-lamp yet
After reading the From the Editor column in June, “A new light,” let’s take a moment from extolling the virtues of compact fluorescent bulbs to consider their vices.

First, they contain mercury, now known to be a dangerous, pervasive, and highly toxic element. Little appears to have been planned for recovering these bulbs.

Second, they are unusable in cool spaces —ceiling fans, basements, etc.—warming up poorly or not at all.

Third, they illuminate with very different colors from incandescents, varying greatly by manufacturer or type. Your “new décor” may not suit you at all.

Fourth, even when working properly and despite their lumen rating, they are not equivalent to incandescents’ perceived brightness. They are dimmer, especially the “flood” types.

So, they are toxic to the environment, a pollution hazard in your home, unsuitable for many locations and uses, dimmer than the bulbs they replace, and alter the colors of everything in your home. With the speed of development and improvement of LED lights, it’s foolish to re-lamp with compact fluorescents at this time.
Milo Folley


by Jennifer Taylor

Sitting in my home surfing the Internet one rainy afternoon, I came across an article about mercury in compact fluorescent light bulbs. Since several of my lamps and light fixtures have CFLs, I wanted to know, “What’s going on with them and mercury?”

CFLs save money, use less electricity, and help promote energy efficiency. But what if a bulb breaks or burns out? I can easily picture my manic feline, Otis, turning a lamp over and breaking the CFL. Is the amount of mercury in the bulb harmful? How would I clean it up safely? After a quick switch to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site, I learned there were no serious concerns.

How do you clean up a broken CFL?
According to the EPA, the greatest risk if a bulb breaks is getting cut from the glass shards. Research indicates no immediate health risk to people should a bulb break if it is cleaned up properly:

• Sweep up, do not vacuum, the glass fragments and particles.

• Place the broken pieces in a sealed plastic bag and wipe the area with a damp paper towel to pick up any remaining stray shards or particles. Put the paper towel in the sealed plastic bag when you are finished.

• If weather permits, open the windows and ventilate the room.

What should you do with a CFL when it burns out?
Like paint, batteries, thermostats, and other hazardous items, CFLs should be disposed of properly. The EPA is working with CFL manufacturers and U.S. retailers to expand disposal options. You can search for disposal options online by using your zip code at, calling (877) EARTH-911, or visiting

Also, check with your local waste management agency. If a disposal site is not available in your area, the EPA suggests placing the burned-out or broken bulb in a plastic bag, which should be sealed before being placed in the trash. Never send a CFL or other mercury-containing product to an incinerator.

The benefits of CFLs greatly outweigh the risks.

“There is only a very small amount of mercury in CFLs, hardly enough to worry about,” says Jim Stine, senior principal, Environmental Policy Department for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “On average, the bulbs contain five milligrams of mercury. Compare that to 3,000 milligrams of mercury in older thermostats and 500 milligrams of mercury in a mercury thermometer.”

Switching from traditional light bulbs to CFLs is an effective, accessible change every American can make to save energy and help the environment.

Jennifer Taylor writes on co-op and consumer issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

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