There Are Crazy Conspiracy Theories About Light Bulbs, and Then There Are Some Real Dangers

Buying lightbulbs has never been more confusing, here's what you should know.

The light-bulb aisle has never been more confusing. Gone are traditional incandescent bulbs, replaced by Halogen incandescents, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), and a variety of expensive light-emitting diode (LED) lights. And while these greener choices come with their unique trade-offs, they're not necessarily the unsatisfactory alternatives their detractors claim them to be.

Critics, especially right-wing commentators, like to scream that President Obama banned incandescent light bulbs in the United States, although there is no such ban and Obama wasn't even in office when legislation was signed to create new energy regulations. At the start of 2014, stricter standards kicked in as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which was signed by George W. Bush.

As a result of this legislation, America's most popular bulb, the 60-watt incandescent, was phased out by its manufacturers at the end of last year. Stores that still have them in their inventory can continue to sell them. However, some consumers, likely frightened by conspiracy theories and tales of health risks associated with some of the newer bulbs — like the  rumors that they are part of a socialist plot to control the industry and require a hazmat crew to clean if broken — have likely emptied all the incandescents from all store shelves by now.

The reality is this: With the traditional incandescent bulb gone, we're left with three options for lighting. All of them are more efficient, but each type has its pros and cons. Let's look at the options of greener lighting beyond the hype:

Halogen incandescent bulbs. These incandescent bulbs work much like the old incandescents. They use the same tungsten filament of a traditional bulb with halogen gas instead of a vacuum, which helps the bulbs burn more efficiently. They can have the same shape, size, brightness, color temperature, and color rendering index if desired. And despite claims to the contrary, Halogen bulbs do not contain toxic heavy metals or mercury.

Like traditional incandescents, Halogens instantly produce light, accurately show the colors of objects, are fully dimmable. They use about 25% less energy than the old incandescents, so they just meet the newly enacted energy-efficiency standards. A 43-Watt bulb is the equivalent of an old 60-Watt filament bulb. But although they may lighten your electric bill, they cost about $1.50 apiece compared to the traditional incandescents (which costed a little as $0.15 apiece), as the Halogen technology is more expensive to use and manufacture. Further, they only last about as long as traditional incandescents. But these more expensive Halogen bulbs might pay for themselves: A 60-Watt incandescent bulb costed about $8 per year for three hours of light each day, while the Halogen version costs about $6, which helps defray the higher purchase cost.

But critics of energy-efficiency legislation say that Halogen bulbs won't last past 2020, when lighting efficiency standards become stricter, thus proving their claims that the new energy-efficiency standards are in fact a bulb ban. In fact, the second tier of restrictions that will go into place by 2020 will likely mark the end of the Halogen incandescent bulb, as general-purpose bulbs would need to produce at least 45 lumens per Watt (similar to current CFLs).

CFLs.A typical 14-Watt CFL bulb shines about as brightly as a 60-watt incandescent yet uses about 75 percent less energy and lasts about 10 times as long (but consumer testing has shown that some cheaper models don't hold up as well). While these bulbs were once expensive, you can now buy CFLs for as little as $1.50. But these bulbs can be clunky: Compact fluorescent lights can cast an odd color of light, so colors of objects don't look quite right. Even the CFLs' that are designed to make the colors warmer may seem off to those more sensitive to lighting differences. Also, CFLs can take bit of time to fully brighten, especially outdoors or in rooms that are cool. And last, most CFLs are not dimmable, but you'll pay more for the ones that are.

But the concerns over the safety of CFLs are exaggerated (mostly for political reasons). Many consumers have a notable worry over mercury in the bulbs, but the typical mercury exposure from breaking a CFL bulb is only about 0.07 mcg. To put this in proper context, a can of tuna has almost 700 times more mercury and an old mercury thermometer, if broken, would release more than 6000 times the mercury. While any broken bulb should be handled with care, it is perhaps best that CFL bulbs be cleaned with broom instead of a vacuum cleaner, which may disperse some of its contents into the air. Moreover, if the bulb never breaks, there is no exposure risk whatsoever, despite the hype you may read from the energy-efficiency conspiracy theorists. But even so, many CFL bulbs are now sold with protective coverings to mitigate the risk.

Still, the argument has been put out there that once these bulbs break or are disposed, they will add to the mercury in the environment. Right-wing groups love to scare the public about the hazards of the mercury in CFLs, but they don't seem too concerned about regulating the mercury emitted by power plants; one coal power plant spews much more mercury into the air when it has to produce additional energy to power incandescent bulbs than what may come out of thousands of improperly disposed CFLs. Even so, many municipalities, and even big-box and hardware stores, will take your unbroken CFLs off your hands for recycling.

The other health concerns cited include a higher electromagnetic field, but this seems to be a nothingburger. While CFLs do generate EMF, the levels are well below the maximum levels of exposure and much less than the EMF emissions of electric appliances, automobiles, and electronics.

Other rumors spread by critics are that CFLs can create epileptic seizures as did some of their fluorescent ancestors many years ago. However, CFL's have electronic ballast circuits run at higher frequencies (10–20 kHz) than perceivable by the human eye. Only if a CFL is notably defective could it cause problems for those with epilepsy caused by photosensitivity.

LEDs. While expensive ($12 for even the simplest bulb), LEDs are the latest rage. These bulbs are highly advanced and can be customizable in many ways with many light-color and shape options available. Moreover, manufacturers are producing LED lights that can be controlled remotely via smartphone or tablet apps. Those who are fond of the light of standard incandescents should be happy to know that LEDs can mimic the same lighting warmth, if desired, and they also light up instantly. They can also be dimmed just as low as incandescent bulbs.

But what makes LEDs most appealing is that they last far longer than even CFLs. Some manufacturers claim that they can last up to 46 years when used three hours a day, and their lifespan is not affected by turning them off and on. To make LEDs even more enticing, they use about half the energy of the CFL lights. While prices are still high, they're dropping quickly as consumers switch to them and competition heats up between manufacturers.

All this great news about LED lights isn't stopping the naysayers from decrying them. In an OpEd sent to newspapers, the National Center for Public Policy, a business-propaganda think tank, claimed that LED lighting has a narrow beam and lighting is cooler than incandescent bulbs. However, Consumer Reports — which actually tested LED lights — has found the beams from some of the models they tested to be wide and the colors were warm. The National Center for Public Policy also complained that LED lights weren't romantic, but we're not quite sure if and how they actually tested this out.

Unfortunately, LEDs do have a dark side, as they contain heavy metals such as lead, nickel, arsenic, and copper, which have been linked to cancer, neurological damage, kidney disease, hypertension, skin rashes and other illnesses.

But many LED bulbs do come with hard and rubberized coatings to help keep them from shattering and releasing their contents, and should pose no health risks during regular use. However, disposal and possible breakage — however remote — do pose concerns. Currently, LEDs are not classified as toxic, and can be disposed of in conventional landfills, but researchers from the University of California Irvine say that when pulverized these lights have notable levels of toxins and present public health risks.

The researchers say that while breaking one LED bulb and inhaling its fumes shouldn't cause cancer in itself, we don't need extra toxins in our environment. They suggest anyone who comes in contact with a broken LED bulb use a dedicated broom, gloves, and a mask to clean the area.

However, there is hope that less toxic LED lights can be produced. The same researchers say that LED makers can easily cut the concentrations of heavy metals in their bulbs, or even redesign them using safer materials, if compelled by state or federal regulations to do so. Such changes could make LEDs the most environmentally friendly of all our lighting options.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.


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