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

LEDs are very energy efficient, but they're also a threat to our health.

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.

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