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Turning out the lights on traditional light bulbs

By Lynsey Hart
On January 13, 2013

The United States government has implemented phase two of a 2007 law that makes it illegal to manufacture or import traditional incandescent light bulbs.

The first phase was put into effect in 2012 and essentially banned 100-watt bulbs, phase two affects 75-watt bulbs and 60-40-watt bulbs will be nixed at the start of 2014. To be clear, the law does not prohibit the sale, or use, of the traditional bulbs.

Incandescent bulbs will be replaced with compact fluorescent bulbs, or CFLs, which use about 75 percent less energy and last at least six times longer, when used properly.

However, some people warn that these figures to not take into account all of the effects of manufacturing and using CFL light bulbs; job outsourcing, energy required to produce the new light bulbs and materials used in composition should also be taken into consideration.

In incandescent lights, the filament is electrified until it glows and only 10 percent of the electricity used is transformed into light. In CFLs, an electric current runs through tubing that contains argon and mercury vapor.

This produces ultraviolet light, which is invisible but causes a fluorescent coating on the inside of the light bulb to glow. While CFLs take energy to "heat up" they use very little energy while they remain on, this preserves around 25 percent of energy to be used for lighting.

Historically, light bulbs have been sold by wattage, which is a measure of the amount of energy that they use. However, in order to accurately compare CFLs to traditional light bulbs, consumers will need to shop a little differently. Instead of purchasing light bulbs based on their wattage, consumers will need to look at the lumens, or amount of visible light, that a bulb emits.

According to ENERGY STAR, a joint program between the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and the Department of Energy, if every house in America replaced one incandescent light bulb with a CFL we would save enough energy to light over 3 million homes for one year, as well as save $600 million in annual energy costs and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emission of over 800,000 cars. Currently, Americans spend about $58 billion annually in lighting costs.

Considering that ENERGY STAR approximates that the average household has 30 light fixtures, the possible energy and monetary savings are immense. Breaking it down to a more relatable scale, replacing the lighting in one fixture from an incandescent bulb to a CFL will save about $50.

While initially CFLs are more expensive because the bulbs cost more that traditional incandescent bulbs, Nick Souksavat, senior, said that did not deter him from replacing as many light fixtures in his apartment with CFLs as possible because, "they're a good investment."

However, concerns have been raised about how beneficial CFLs truly are. Fluorescent lighting is best produced when is it emitted from long, skinny tubes.

In order to make the design compact CFLs have twisted tubing, which at this time can only be done by hand. Because of this, almost all production is done in China. This has led to jump outsourcing and due to the 2007 law General Electric closed their last remaining light bulb production facility in the United States in 2010.

Another concern is that CFL light bulbs require mercury in order to work. Each bulb contains around 0.5 grams of mercury. For reference, old oral and baby thermometers, which are currently being phased out, contain 0.61 grams of mercury according to the EPA.

This poses potential problems for both consumer and environmental health. If a CFL breaks, The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, tell people to open the windows and allow the room to air out for 10-15 minutes before cleaning up the glass.

They also say to shut off any central forced air heating or cooling units and to not touch any of the glass with bare hands and to dispose of the piece in a sealable plastic bag or container.

Unfortunately, many consumers are unaware of the precautions that they are supposed to take.

Souksavat says that he "vaguely" knows about the clean up procedure but admits that he has not, "really looked into the entire process."

There are also potential hazards to the environment. The EPA recommends that consumers follow certain precautions when disposing of their CFLs.

In the city of Chicago, consumers can drop-off old CFLs at the Household Chemicals and Computer Recycling Facility at 1150 N. North Branch (by Goose Island) or at any Home Depot. However, current laws in Chicago and many other cities across the United States do not require that CFLs be properly disposed.

A survey by Harris Interactive in 2009 found that 32 percent of participants only sometimes, rarely or never recycle eligible products. Considering proper recycling of CFLs is even more of a hassle than other products, the percentage of consumers who properly dispose of their bulbs is likely to be even less.

This would mean that many CFLs are likely to end up in landfills were they will be broken and buried underground. Mercury will then be able to seep into the soil and leak into the water system; effecting the ecosystem from the fish swimming in rivers and lakes to animals grazing in fields.

After more households are affected by the phase out in 2014, when 60-40 watt incandescent light bulbs are set to go, it is only a matter of time before there are many more consumers who need to toss out broken lights.

Hopefully, more efficient methods will be established, or all of the energy and environmental benefits from the switch will be in jeopardy of being negated by mercury damage.


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