What Fresh Hell Is This?

May 31, 2011

The Trib Should Check Their Science

From the generally scientifically illiterate pages of the Tribune-Review, today we find yet another attack on compact fluorescent light bulbs. This time Scaife's braintrust is using material quoted from that respected and science journal political online magazine The American Thinker:
Pricey compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are even more dangerous -- and make even less economic sense -- than previously thought. They're fire hazards and mercury's just the tip of their toxic iceberg.

Edmund Contoski reports for the American Thinker that Telstar- and Electra-brand CFLs were recalled on May 12 as overheating fire hazards. And he notes that cleaning up after CFLs flame out usually breaks environmental regulations.
And so on.

I was curious what a real science magazine had to say about CFLs. In 2007 Popular Mechanics did a side by side comparison between CFLs and the incandescent bulb. Know what they found? That's right:
The results surprised us. Even though the incandescent bulb measured slightly brighter than the equivalent CFLs, our subjects didn't see any dramatic difference in brightness. And here was the real shocker: When it came to the overall quality of the light, all the CFLs scored higher than our incandescent control bulb. In other words, the new fluorescent bulbs aren't just better for both your wallet and the environment, they produce better light.
Then they alsopublished this "reality check" regarding the newer better lightbulbs. Some highlights. On the safety of the mercury:
How much mercury is contained in a CFL?
Each bulb contains an average of 5 milligrams of mercury, “which is just enough to cover a ballpoint pen tip,” says Leslie, associate director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer. “Though it’s nothing to laugh at, unless you wipe up mercury [without gloves] and then lick your hand, you’re probably going to be okay.”
On the energy savings by using a CFL:
How much of a difference can CFLs really make?
According to EnergyStar—a program run by the Environmental Protection Agency—if each U.S. home replaced just one of its incandescent bulbs with a CFL, the electricity saved each year could light 3 million homes and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equal to that of 800,000 cars.
But the big concern about CFLs revolves around the mercury used in them. And to that issue Popular Mechanics points out:
How much mercury do power plants emit to light a CFL?
About 50 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. is generated by coal-fired power plants. When coal burns to produce electricity, mercury naturally contained in the coal releases into the air. In 2006, coal-fired power plants produced 1,971 billion kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity, emitting 50.7 tons of mercury into the air—the equivalent amount of mercury contained in more than 9 billion CFLs (the bulbs emit zero mercury when in use or being handled).

Approximately 0.0234 mg of mercury—plus carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide—releases into the air per 1 kwh of electricity that a coal-fired power plant generates. Over the 7500-hour average range of one CFL, then, a plant will emit 13.16 mg of mercury to sustain a 75-watt incandescent bulb but only 3.51 mg of mercury to sustain a 20-watt CFL (the lightning equivalent of a 75-watt traditional bulb). Even if the mercury contained in a CFL was directly released into the atmosphere, an incandescent would still contribute 4.65 more milligrams of mercury into the environment over its lifetime.
So let's see. A real science journal vs a political opinion magazine. Where would you get your science?

To hear the chicken littles at the Trib describe it, a CFL packs enough plutonium to kill each and everyone of us twelve times over. Here's the Guv'ment's cleanup guidelines for CFLs.


GeneW said...

I've been lighting my house with them for twenty years, I never knew that I was committing a political act, I was just trying to save a little money on power.

The whole conservative war on fluorescent light bulbs is just weird. Incandescent filaments have had a 135 year run as a technology, it's not surprising that we've developed something better by this time.

EdHeath said...

I will say I intended a political act by lighting first my house, and then the apartment I now live in with CFL's. But like GeneW, I was also looking to save money. I have broken a couple here and there, but since open the windows and things seem fine. I'm not surprised the using cfl's actually reduces the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere, by using power.

cfl's often have a smaller risk of fire. There have been cfl torchiere's for some time (although they are now harder to find), compared to the heat from a 300 watt halogen bulb (that might spontaneously combust if dusty), the 60 watts from a fluorescent bulb is pretty safe. And since cfl's are newer bulbs, I am not surprised that more effort has gone into improving the light they put out.

Ol' Froth said...

but...but..but.....if we use less electicity, then the utilities and the coal mines wont make as much money in the short term, and we can't have that!

Conservative Mountaineer said...

@GeneW and Ed..

Serious questions for either of you as I am truly curious.. no snarkiness intended.

Do you use the squirrly CFLs intended to replace a typical bulb? Have you found they take longer to come to full lighting? Have you found the full lighting is worse, as good or better than a typical bulb?

We have a lot of recessed lights in our contemporary-style house.. can't see where CFLs would work. For other areas, I'm meehh. I do have flourescent lights in my home office including a torchier-type.

Professor Chaos said...

The older cfl's used to take several seconds to light up all the way, but the ones they sell now light up instantly just like the incandescents. The light quality seems the same to me, but it's a matter of opinion.

EdHeath said...

CM, currently I use only one incandescent, in the refrigerator. Yes, some of the CFL's take some time to get to full brightness (in the kitchen and in the bedroom, which is a tiny annoyance. Generally I find the lighting to be as good as incandescents (not better, but certainly no worse). I do use one "daylight" style cfl bulb in the overhead in my bedroom (useful for when I want to wake up in the morning). Of course that is not unique to cfl's, there are daylight style incandescent bulbs as well.

Where I lived previously there were some recessed fixtures, cfl's worked fine in them (and had the advantage of needing to be replaced much less frequently).

cfl's are admittedly more expensive, maybe two to four times as expensive as incandescents (with careful shopping), but they make up for it with the lower energy use and longer life. They are the prototypical low hanging fruit in reducing one's carbon footprint and saving money in the process.

Ol' Froth said...

I've been using CFL's for about 13 years and have no issue with them. The only place we don't use them is in the kitchen, where we have track lighting, but I think the LED bulbs will work there, just need to find a convienent source for those. Have yet to have a CFL burn out either, but I expect that to happen soon.

Brad Buscher said...

CFLs are a better solution, both economically and environmentally, than incandescent bulbs, which ultimately result in greater mercury exposure than CFLs. While incandescents do not contain mercury, they still contribute to its release into the environment. Because burning coal to generate electricity releases mercury into the air and incandescent bulbs use more electricity over their lifetimes, they are responsible for more energy consumption and ultimately more mercury emissions than CFLs. In comparison to their incandescent counterparts, CFLs emit approximately the same amount of visible light and last 8 to 15 times as long. With a proven packaging configuration and proper disposal, CFLs can be used effectively without releasing harmful mercury vapor.

While a variety of containers are marketed for transportation of fluorescent lamps and CFLs, many don't provide sufficient protection against mercury vapor emitted from broken lamps. Consumers should properly dispose of these lamps if broken or burned out. If a lamp burns out, consumers can learn how to safely package CFLs here: vaporlok.blogspot.com/2010/05/layers-of-protection-packaging-used.html. If a bulb breaks, consumers can learn more about clean-up procedures here: epa.gov/cfl/cflcleanup-detailed.html