California Moves to Ban Incandescent Light Bulbs

Published July 1, 2007

Incandescent light bulbs are one step closer to being banned in California, after the California Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee voted 7-2 on April 23 to enact such a ban.

The proposed ban, aimed at combating global warming by reducing electricity use, is being criticized for posing environmental risks and unnecessary costs on consumers for a mere symbolic effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

Fluorescent Bulbs Hazardous

Although environmentalists are advocating the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) to replace incandescent ones, CFLs pose real environmental hazards, according to those same activists and public authorities.

As reported in an April 12 article in the Ellsworth (Maine) American, Brandy Bridges had the misfortune of breaking a CFL during installation in her daughter’s bedroom. It dropped and shattered on the carpeted floor.

Aware that CFLs contain potentially hazardous substances, Bridges called her local Home Depot for advice. The store told her the CFL contained mercury and that she should call the Poison Control hotline, which in turn directed her to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The DEP sent a specialist to Bridges’ house to test for mercury contamination. The specialist found mercury levels in the bedroom more than six times the state’s “safe” level for mercury contamination, 300 billionths of a gram per cubic meter.

Cleanup Costly

The DEP specialist recommended Bridges call an environmental cleanup firm, which reportedly gave her an estimate of $2,000 to clean the room. The room then was sealed off with plastic, and Bridges began gathering finances to pay for the cleaning. Reportedly, her insurance company wouldn’t cover the costs because mercury is a pollutant.

Given that the replacement of incandescent bulbs with CFLs in the average U.S. household is touted as saving as much as $180 annually in energy costs–and assuming Bridges doesn’t break any more CFLs–it will take her more than 11 years to recoup the cleanup costs in the form of energy savings after dropping one light bulb on a carpeted floor.

And that’s assuming the energy savings are as big as CFL supporters claim.

No Feasible Alternative

The alternative, do-it-yourself approach to CFL cleanup is also problematic.

Consider the procedure offered by the Maine DEP’s Web page titled, “What if I accidentally break a fluorescent bulb in my home?”

According to DEP, you shouldn’t vacuum bulb debris, because a standard vacuum will spread mercury-containing dust throughout the area and contaminate the vacuum. Instead, you should ventilate the area and reduce the temperature. Wear protective equipment such as goggles, coveralls, and a dust mask.

Then, collect the waste material into an airtight container. Pat the area with the sticky side of tape. Wipe with a damp cloth. Finally, check with local authorities to see where hazardous waste may be properly disposed.

And then hope you did a good enough cleanup so that you, your family, and pets aren’t poisoned by any mercury inadvertently dispersed or missed. For as the activist group Environmental Defense notes on its Web site, mercury is a “highly toxic heavy metal that can cause brain damage and learning disabilities in fetuses and children” and is “one of the most poisonous forms of pollution.”

All Pain, No Gain

For all this expense and environmental risk, the effect of incandescent lighting on global warming is minimal, says Jerry Taylor, senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

“How much are greenhouse gas emissions reduced by this ban?” asked Taylor. “It is trivial. This is not a meaningful gesture. This is the nanny state scoring political points by appearing to do something about global warming, but in reality trading away individual liberty for no real impact on global temperatures.

“The quality of light from fluorescent lighting is also quite poor,” Taylor noted. Referencing an article from the May 21 LA Weekly magazine, Taylor observed, “Fluorescent lights simply cannot match the light spectrum of incandescent lights. Not only is the light inferior, but so, too, are the aesthetics. Say goodbye to chandeliers and other forms of lighting art.”

Steven Milloy ([email protected]) publishes and He is a junk science expert, an advocate of free enterprise, and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

For more information …

“Battle of the Bulb,” LA Weekly, May 21, 2007,

“Fluorescent Bulb Break Creates Costly Hassle,” Ellsworth American, April 12, 2007,

“What if I accidentally break a fluorescent bulb in my home?” Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, Department of Environmental Protection, State of Maine,