Federal Ban on Incandescent Light Bulbs Will Backfire

Published March 1, 2008

U.S. consumers will have to say goodbye to inexpensive household light bulbs, according to the provisions of the federal energy bill President George W. Bush signed into law December 19.

Along with restrictions on automobile choice and new requirements that U.S. consumers purchase more expensive automotive fuel, the energy bill requires a complete ban on incandescent light bulbs by the year 2014.

The provision will require consumers to switch from inexpensive incandescent light bulbs to more expensive, and more environmentally hazardous, fluorescent bulbs. The stated rationale for the new restrictions is energy efficiency.

Toxic Mercury Risks

Analysts warn the new restrictions fail to take into consideration a variety of problems, environmental and otherwise, associated with fluorescent bulbs.

The UK Environment Agency, for example, issued a January 4 warning that fluorescent light bulbs contain dangerous mercury. It said anyone in a room where a fluorescent bulb breaks should evacuate the room for at least 15 minutes to avoid breathing in toxic fumes.

Broken bulbs require special cleanup precautions, according to the agency, including the use of rubber gloves, sticky tape, and wet, disposable paper towels. Upon completion of the cleanup, the bulb must be disposed in a completely sealed plastic bag and sent to a special disposal facility capable of handling toxic waste.

“Because these light bulbs contain small amounts of mercury, they could cause a problem if disposed of in a normal bin,” environmental scientist Dr. David Spurgeon told the London Daily Mail.

“It is possible that the mercury could be released into the air or from landfills when they are released into the wider environment. That is a concern, because mercury is a well-known toxic substance,” Spurgeon added.

The Daily Mail also reported, “tens of thousands of people with skin complaints will find it hard to tolerate being near the bulbs as they cause conditions such as eczema to flare up.”

Dangerous Disposal Conditions

Currently there is no program established in the United States or Great Britain to help dispose of fluorescent bulbs. Cities with curbside recycling cannot take fluorescent bulbs. This leaves it up to each individual to bring the bulbs to certified hazardous waste sites or collection facilities.

Understandably, most people put them in their regular garbage, where the bulbs can break (if they haven’t already) and discharge mercury into the ground, at the dumpsite or even the residence.

John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, told National Public Radio, “The problem with the bulbs is that they’ll break before they get to the landfill. They’ll break in containers, or they’ll break in a dumpster or they’ll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens.”

Illusory Efficiency Gains

In addition to the fluorescent light bulbs’ added health and environmental hazards, consumers must significantly change their usage patterns to achieve the promised energy efficiency.

Turning the bulbs on and off shortens their life. An article in the December 31 Weekly Standard noted, “According to Department of Energy guidelines, you need to leave it on for at least 15 minutes” every time you use such a bulb.

That means if you are up watching television at night and want to go into the kitchen to get a glass of water, you will have to leave the light on for a full 15 minutes afterwards or risk significantly shortening the life of a bulb that already costs six to seven times as much as an incandescent one.

Real-world experience suggests people are unlikely to achieve the desired reduction in energy use that motivated the federal mandate.

Sam Kazman, general counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, noted: “The small town of Traer, Iowa launched the Great Light Bulb Exchange, distributing 18,000 high-efficiency bulbs to the small town’s residents. Despite the fact that over half of the town’s households participated, electricity consumption actually rose by 8 percent.”

E.J. Donovan ([email protected]) is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida.