Time for more Q&As from some typical pro-ban sites. These sites can be divided into categories:

a) Lighting industry representatives and lobby organisations
b) Energy saving lobby organisations
c) Energy labelling organisations
d) Utilites
e) Environmental organisations, websites & blogs
f) Government agencies trying their best to explain and justify the ban of their federal masters and/or plug CFLs as the greatest thing since sliced bread (now with LEDs as close runner-up).

None of the latter ever seem to double check the PR information they receive from the former. So, let’s have a closer look at one of these constantly issued Q&As and CFL ‘Myth-busting’ pages. I will comment with the most truthful and updated information at my disposal.


First up is UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, on their energy savers info page. Even if a bit dated now (created at the first step of the phase-out) it gives such good examples of how the ban was spun then and keeps being spun now. The arguments have not changed much, as will be shown in subsequent posts.

The government has been working with all major retailers who sell light bulbs and UK energy suppliers to phase out traditional energy guzzling bulbs, replacing them with energy efficient light bulbs such as Compact Fluorescent Lamps  (CFLs). This is in advance of a EU-wide mandatory phase out of incandescent bulbs that began on 1 September 2009 and which was agreed by EU Member States in December 2008.

My comment: Auccumbinging to lighting industry lobby to get a national ban ahead of schedule is nothing to brag about… And “energy guzzling” (which the EU commission also uses to describe incandescent bulbs, despite them using less than 3% of home energy) is a juvenile phrase no doubt picked up from some ‘green image’ blog. It has no place in what tries to present itself as a respectable government information page.

The traditional light bulb has not changed for over a hundred years since Edison and Swan – the time of Queen Victoria – and these bulbs waste 95% of electricity as heat.

Cheap rhetoric trying to make them sound outdated when they are not. They haven’t changed much because they are already perfect! (If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it!)

And the heat is not ‘wasted’. While giving top quality light at home, it helps the house the same time. A 2003 study by DEFRA’s own Market Transformation Programme, found that throughout the year in a typical British house, about 60% of the energy from lighting turns into useful heat. (Same thing again as with the Swedish Energy Agency in my last post…)

Why have this initiative?

Climate change is the biggest threat facing our planet today. It is happening and it is happening now. Everyone – governments, businesses and individuals – needs to work together to tackle climate change by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

Yes of course. But if the EU Commission was truly serious about that, they would ban things that could actually make a difference, such as SUVs, junk food, soft drinks and bottled water, and start developing those alternative energy sources promised for decades. But that’s not going to happen, because they are not serious about it.

By phasing out the traditional light bulbs, we will all be using less energy so will need less electricity. CFLs are up to 80% more efficient then incandescent lamps.

First of all: no they are not. For a CFL to save 80% compared to an equivalent incandescent lamp, an 11 watt CFL would need to have an initial light flow of at least 730 lumen in Europe and 800 lumen in North America and lose no more than 6% over its lifetime. As both manufacturer catalogues even with their nominal lumen values show and consumer tests confirm, this is not the case. A scant few of the most effective top brand spiral CFLs now, over 30 years later, reach that number initially, but they still lose much more light over their life, even under optimal lab conditions. See also Equivalence Charts. With this + poor power factor + the heat replacement effect, they save not even half that.

Secondly, the percentage they claim to save is not the fictitious 80% (or more realistic percentages) of your entire electricity bill – it’s just made to sound that way – but of the small portion that lighting uses. And lighting uses on average less than 3% of total home energy consumption in the EU (3.85% in the UK) according to EU Energy Statistics, it can never be more than some percentage of those 3-4%.

What are compact fluorescent lamps?

They are small fluorescent lamps which fit into standard light sockets, usually referred to as CFLs or energy saving light bulbs.

They last longer and use less energy than traditional (or incandescent) light bulbs, because they are much more efficient at changing electricity into light.

CFLs are also cost effective. Advice from the Energy Saving Trust suggests that as they will last up to 10 times longer than a traditional bulb, just one energy saving bulb could save up to £3-6 a year and, depending on the length of time lights are in use every day, could save around £40 before it needs replacing.  Fit all the lights in your house with energy saving bulbs and you could save around £37 a year and £590 over the lifetime of all of the bulbs.

Funny how a government agency is so concerned with everyone’s private economy and doesn’t hesitate to forwards the inflated life rate & savings advertisement straight from the lobby organisation. Exactly in the same astounding way supposedly neutral agencies have acted in so many other countries. But perhaps not so surprising when the sources given at the bottom of their page are all lighting industry and their lobby organisations.

What other alternatives are there to incandescent lamps?

CFLs are the most energy efficient alternative technology, however halogen lamps are now available to fit into standard light sockets and emit light not dissimilar to incandescent lamps, but with only a 25-40% energy saving.

Not even 25% it turned out…

In the longer term, lamps based on Light-Emitting Diode (LED) technology promise to be highly-efficient alternatives even to CFLs.

The Energy Saving Trust’s website provide useful information on alternatives.

Already paving the ground for the even more profitable alternaties (profitable for the lighting industry, that is) and referral to one of the lobby organisations itself.

Are CFLs bad for my health?

Energy efficient light bulbs are not a danger to the public.

Like many household products, they must be disposed of sensibly and there are suitable facilities available for this purpose. Although they contain mercury, limited at 5mg per lamp, it cannot escape from a lamp that is intact. In any case, the very small amount contained in an energy efficient bulb is unlikely to cause harm even if the lamp should be broken.

True that it probably can’t escape unless the lamp is broken, but they cite no studies showing that it is harmless if broken. In July, 2011, a study showed that:

Once broken, a compact fluorescent light bulb continuously releases mercury vapor into the air for weeks to months, and the total amount can exceed safe human exposure levels in a poorly ventilated room, according to study results reported in Environmental Engineering Science, a peer-reviewed online only journal published monthly by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

The amount of liquid mercury (Hg) that leaches from a broken compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) is lower than the level allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), so CFLs are not considered hazardous waste. However, Yadong Li and Li Jin, Jackson State University (Jackson, MS) report that the total amount of Hg vapor released from a broken CFL over time can be higher than the amount considered safe for human exposure. They document their findings in the article “Environmental Release of Mercury from Broken Compact Fluorescent Lamps.”

As people can readily inhale vapor-phase mercury, the authors suggest rapid removal of broken CFLs and adequate ventilation, as well as suitable packaging to minimize the risk of breakage of CFLs and to retain Hg vapor if they do break, thereby limiting human exposure.

Tests of eight different brands of CFLs and four different wattages revealed that Hg content varies significantly from brand to brand. To determine the amount of Hg released by a broken CFL, Li and Jin used standard procedures developed by the EPA to measure leaching of mercury in liquids and used an emission monitoring system to detect Hg vapor.

“This paper is a very nice holistic analysis of potential risks associated with mercury release from broken CFLs and points to potential human health threats that have not always been considered,” according to Domenico Grasso, PhD, Editor-in-Chief and Vice President for Research, Dean of the Graduate College, University of Vermont (Burlington).

Mercury Vapor Released from Broken Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs Can Exceed Safe Exposure Levels for Humans, Study Finds

See also my earlier post: Mercury Problem Worse Than Suspected

Do CFLs contain mercury?

Yes, they need mercury to generate light efficiently. The mercury is used to produce ultraviolet light, which is then changed into light we can see by a special coating in the lamp. The coating is inert and poses no health risk.

Nowadays, the typical amount is 3 – 4 milligrams per lamp (and limited at 5mg per lamp) – just enough to cover the tip of a ball point pen and just enough to last the expected life-time of the lamp.

This reply immediately sets off my lobby alarm. That “ball-point pen” counter-argument is just one more in a long line of desperate attempts to downplay the still embarrassing and rather alarming fact that a supposed ‘green’ lamp contains mercury. I’ve seen it a thousand times on the internet. It seems to originate from – surprise! – Harry Verhaar, Philips Lighting, 2007 and was posted on Nils Borg’s energy lobby organisation eceee’s website:

However a number of concerns still exist regarding CFLs. These lamps contain minute amounts of mercury, which is needed to create light in an efficient way. Despite the fact that the mercury used would fit on the tip of a ballpoint pen, there is a justified worry about this mercury being disposed of in the ground. CFL’s fall under the EU WEEE recycling laws and it is expected that in the future the great majority will be recycled.

Why would a government agency with the stated mission “to protect the environment for future generations” try to downplay mercury contamination risks with minising statements like “the size of a ball point pen” – which may still be over the ‘safe’ limit when that evaporates and spreads in a room. Quoting an article I’ve cited earlier, Mercury in CFLs – special investigation (emphases added):

“First off, the often-cited claim that bulbs contain only 5mg of mercury was clarified: it’s an average. (..) The average amount of mercury in a CFL is 5 mg with a range of 0.9 to 18 mg. Obviously, the smaller (in watts) the bulb, the less mercury. Higher power (brighter) bulbs generally have more, although there can be fluctuations between brands as well.”

“‘Mercury concentration in the study room air often exceeds the Maine Ambient Air Guideline (MAAG) of 300 nanograms per cubic meter (ng/m3) for some period of time, with short excursions over 25,000 ng/m3, sometimes over 50,000 ng/m3, and possibly over 100,000 ng/m3 from the breakage of a single compact fluorescent lamp,’ the report confirms.

“That’s up to 300 times higher than the recommended safe level of inhalable mercury vapour. From just one light bulb. According to the DEP scientific study, while the 300 ng/m3 limit is the maximum allowable daily dose of mercury for the sake of legislation, there is in fact no known safe level for mercury exposure.”

Shouldn’t DEFRA know this? Isn’t that part of their job?

Will the mercury in CFLs cause damage to the environment?

Over the life time of both lamp types, energy efficient bulbs produce less mercury. This is due to the fact that mercury is emitted from power stations during electricity generation and energy saving bulbs are more energy efficient – therefore saving on the amount of electricity that needs to be generated.

Ah, here we got the next tired old PR argument that has been recycled over and over since early 1990s. This too is rehashed by Harry Verhaar via eceee:

However, mercury is also omitted in the atmosphere from the power system, and the mercury contained in lamps need to be weighed against that emitted from power plants. Studies show that indirectly the additional energy usage of incandescent bulbs is responsible for more mercury entering the environment than that is contained in a CFL.

This argument was invalid when it was created in 1991, and is even more so today. I believe was done on behalf of the Danish Market Transformation Programme, and spread via Nils Borg’s other energy lobby organisation IAEEL through other Market Transformation Programmes such as the Swedish one by STEM (see CFL Analysis – Mercury for more details, references and a pdf copy of the Danish ‘study’).

It was based on a fantasy calculation exercise at a Danish university in 1991, with an imaginary scenario of a CFL containing only 0.69 mg mercury (impossible to attain at that time, and still is), while electricity production from coal was assumed at a whopping 95% (as was the case in Denmark at that time but nowhere close to true for the rest of EU then, and even less so today). 

Of course, we’ve done a lot to reduce mercury emissions in the UK in recent years. Total emissions have fallen by 80% since 1990 and stand at 7.6 tonnes a year (2005 NAEI figures – see; power generation accounts for about 31% of this total.

Amusingly, DEFRA is clearly unaware that they just confirmed the invalidity of the first paragraph with the information in the second, (stating coal production is now only 31%) and the earlier point above (mercury content being 3-4, max 5 mg)!

This is what happens when you only repeat the arguments that the lobby organisations feed you, without doing your homework and actually understanding what you’re saying.

Does the mercury in a CFL pose a risk?

The mercury cannot escape from an intact lamp and, even if the lamp should be broken, the very small amount of mercury contained in a single, modern CFL is most unlikely to cause any harm.

But it makes sense to avoid unnecessary contact with mercury; and any light bulb – broken or intact – should be dealt with sensibly.

Again downplaying the risk, instead of warning of use around children, pregnant women and the elderly and sick!

‘Sensitive populations are of particular concern with mercury exposures for a number of reasons.’ ‘Elderly and unhealthy individuals may already be at comprised health and be more susceptible to mercury effects than a healthy individual. For example, mercury does kidney damage which could exacerbate an already existing kidney disease’.

‘Infants and toddlers have much more vulnerable brains.’ ‘Mercury exposures have serious impacts on fetal and infant brain development. Elemental mercury can cross the placenta from a mother to fetus.’ ‘It is well established that the developing organism may be much more sensitive than the adult to neurotoxic agents,’ reports Maine’s DEP study. ‘For example, methylmercury exposure can produce devastating effects in the fetus, including cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, and even death, while producing no or minimal effects in the mother‘.

Source: Mercury in CFLs – Special Investigation See also Mercury in Fluorescent Lighting

Is a bulb likely to break?

Like all household products energy efficient bulbs can break, but they are actually harder to break than traditional bulbs: they are often coated with plastic as a protector and as they’re of a smaller diameter than traditional bulbs they’d have higher stress limits. According to trade figures, breakage rates are less than 1%.

Only some of the CFLs with outer bulb have an extra protective coating. Naked U- and spiral tubes do not. (Especially the spiral tubes seem particularly thin and vulnerable to breakage, but I’m not going to test that.)

An even if the 1% breakage rate reported by the industry reflected reality – which I doubt – that’s still a lot of broken CFLs! According to this Oxford report, “LIF (Lighting Industry Federation) estimate that 7 million CFLs were sold into the domestic [UK] market in 1999.” That makes 70 000 broken bulbs per year in the UK alone! (Can’t find fresher numbers but sales have probably more than doubled by now.)

How should I deal with a broken CFL?

Although the accidental breakage of a lamp is most unlikely to cause any health problems, it’s good practice to minimise any unnecessary exposure to mercury, as well as risk of cuts from glass fragments.

Revised advice issued by the Health Protection Agency is to:

  • Ventilate the room
  • Wipe the area with a damp cloth, place that in the plastic bag and seal it
  • Sticky tape (e.g. duct tape or similar) can be used to pick up small residual pieces or powder from soft furnishings and then placed in a sealed plastic bag. The plastic bag doesn’t need to be air tight, but should be reasonably sturdy.
  • Place it in another, similar bag and seal that one as well (this minimises cuts from broken glass).

The public should contact the local authority for advice on where to dispose of broken or intact CFLs as they should be treated as hazardous waste and should not be disposed of in the bin. All local councils have an obligation to make arrangements for the disposal of household hazardous waste at a civic amenity site or household waste recycling centre. The National Household Hazardous Waste Forum runs a website with details of these centres for chemicals, but which also applies to other hazardous wastes ( Alternatively contact your local council direct.

Mercury in CFLs – Special Investigation found this advice quite insufficient:

But the most up to date safety study available says plastic bags are next to useless for containing a broken CFL bulb.

“Double re-sealable polyethylene bags…did not appear to retard the migration of mercury adequately to maintain room air concentrations below the MAAG… The significance of this issue is that cleanup material may remain in the home for some period of time and/or be transported inside a closed vehicle, exposing occupants to avoidable mercury vapors when improperly contained,” report the Maine scientists. The best method of containing bulb waste is inside a glass jar with a hermetically sealed lid.

Surprisingly, plastic jars, like large peanut butter containers with screw top lids were little better than plastic bags, also failing to prevent mercury vapour from leaking into the house.

The scientific experiments proved that debris “sealed inside two polyethylene plastic bags and then placed in a clean room”, sent atmospheric mercury levels up to more than three times the maximum allowable limit, for more than eight hours – the mercury vapour simply leached out of the bags into the air.

“Of the 12 different types of containers tested during the 23 different tests, the plastic bag was found to be the worst choice for containing mercury emissions. Based upon this study, the DEP now suggests that a glass container with metal screw lid with a gum seal be used to contain debris.”

All of which means the current disposal advice given by New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment is dangerously faulty, based on the most recent scientific studies. If a bulb breaks, disposing of it in two plastic bags will not prevent it from poisoning your house. Only a glass jar with a hermetically sealed screw-top lid is safe enough to hold the debris.

Clearly, many agencies around the globe have received – and posted – the same useless information on best clean-up procedures, thereby putting millions at risk.

How should I dispose of unwanted CFLs, e.g. at the end of their life?

From 1st July 2007, waste CFLs have been subject to the requirements of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations. Those who sell items such as energy efficient bulbs must provide information to the public about where they can take waste bulbs and other WEEE. Some retailers will also take them back in store. However, most retailers have funded Designated Collection Facilities, in the main at local authority civic amenity sites. From this point, producers of the equipment fund the transport, treatment and recycling, where most of the mercury can be recovered.

This is a good and necessary step, but not everyone has the time, energy and opportunity to get their burned out CFLs to the right place for recycling, so the easiest thing would have been to simply ban the mercury-containing CFLs for home use in line with the RoHS directive:

  1. Lead (Pb)
  2. Mercury (Hg)
  3. Cadmium (Cd)
  4. Hexavalent chromium (Cr6+)
  5. Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB)
  6. Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE)

Amazingly, CFLs are exempt from this hazardous substances ban due to their false claims of saving so much energy.

How does this amount compare to other articles that contain mercury?

A typical mercury thermometer may contain 0.5 to 3 grams of mercury, whilst a typical mercury barometer may contain 100 to 600 grams of mercury, around 25,000 to 150,000 times more than an energy saving bulb.

Again trying to downplay the significance of the mercury content in CFLs with another of the popular propaganda retorts handed out by lobby organisation for government agencies, environmental organisations and a gazillions of ‘green’ bloggers and commentating trolls to repeat ad nauseum, despite being totally meaningless:

What a typical thermometer contains is irrelevant since they are banned for that mercury content. According to this Canadian news site, 5 mg of mercury is “enough to make 6,000 gallons of water toxic“. (That’s why Canada decided against an incandescent ban.)

(The third popular retort is the one comparing with dental amalgam. DEFRA very wisely skipped opening that can of worms…)

Is the light from CFLs bad for my skin?

In October 2008 the Health Protection Agency issued precautionary advice regarding the use of certain types of CFLs in close range for periods of time over one hour. Their advice is that that open (single envelope) CFLs should not be used where people are in close proximity – closer than 30 cm or 1 ft – to the bare light bulb for over 1 hour a day. At these distances CFLs might emit Ultra Violet (UV) light at a level less than equivalent to being outside on a sunny summer’s day.

If bulbs are required at these distances then an encapsulated (double envelope) CFL should be used. These are cost around the same as open CFLs and offer similar levels of energy savings.

All CFLs are safe for normal usage and the HPA does not advise removing CFLs from your home.  More information can be found on the HPA website.

Through EU legislation, mandatory limits will ensure that all CFLs will not emit UV light above safe levels from September 2009. The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks also published a report into this issue recently and this can be found on the EC website.

Good, but I don’t think they’ve actually done much to enforce such a needed supervision. SCENIHR seems to accept most of the industry claims that their lamps are perfectly safe. See these posts on Health issues for more details.

What about those with light-sensitive conditions?

The Government has been in discussion with groups representing a small number of individuals for whom the use of CFLs can aggravate pre-existing light-sensitive conditions. The Government was successful in pressing the European Commission to introduce mandatory standards for UV emissions.

The Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks published a report into this issue recently and this can be found on the EC website.

As an alternative to CFLs, halogen lamps (like the one pictured) are now available for use in standard sockets which operate in a similar way to incandescent bulbs, however these offer only relatively small energy savings.

That “small number of people” are estimated by SCENIHR to be around 250 000 in the EU. And asking the affected themselves, it seems to be rather 2 million in the UK alone! Ban on incandescent bulb in U.K raising concerns on health issue of two million people

Don’t efficient bulbs take a while to warm up?

Modern, good quality, efficient bulbs should take little more than a couple seconds to warm up to full brightness, the short delay is due to the way they work.

The best CFLs have generally gotten a bit faster, but according to the latest CFL consumer tests, there are still big variations in start-up time between various CFL models. They are generally not (even by the EU Commission) recommended for bathrooms, closets, stairways and other spaces you only visit briefly and need full light instantly.

But aren’t efficient bulbs too big for most fittings? And don’t they give off  ‘gloomy’ light?

The technology of energy efficient light bulbs has improved massively in recent years. Manufacturers have now developed “look-alike” bulbs for the majority of light fittings and they give the same standard and quality of light as existing bulbs and in the same shapes.

At the moment, many efficient bulbs are not compatible with dimmer switches. However dimmable bulbs are on the market and will be made increasingly available in the UK during the phase out period. As an alternative to CFLs, halogen-based lamps are now available for use in standard lamps sockets, though these only offer relatively small savings.

In the past, the variety of colours available from CFLs was limited and they usually came as a ‘cold blue’ colour. Energy efficient bulbs now come in a range of colours from the original ‘cold blue’ to the traditional ‘warm white’ that you get from incandescent lights. Look for the Energy Saving Trust’s ‘Energy Saving Recommended’ logo as these have to emit the same warm light level as old fashioned bulbs.

True that the best CFLs look decently incandescent-like now. But they still only have limited colour rendering capacity (CRI 81-83).

True that there are more models now to fit a wider variety of luminaires (light fittings). But there are still many home luminaires where the replacement lamps don’t fit well or are unsuitable for other reasons.

True that there are now a few dimmable CFLs, but they are very expensive and don’t dim very nicely. But at least they may not fry existing dimming circuits like standard CFLs.

True that there are halogen energy savers, and that these dim beautifully. But only clear ones are permitted which can be quite glaring at full power. [Edit: And only  to 2018, after which most halogen lamps will be banned to.]

Aren’t these bulbs more expensive?

Whilst the upfront cost of efficient bulbs can be greater than traditional bulbs, according to the Energy Saving Trust efficient bulbs last up to ten times longer than a normal bulb and can up to £3-6 a year each in energy bills (for a 100W bulb), saving consumers up to £60 over the lifetime of the bulb in reduced energy bills and replacement costs.

Retailers are now selling efficient light bulbs at prices well under £1, and in some cases prices are not much more than traditional bulbs.

If the CFL is ‘cheap’ it is often either poor quality, and/or subsidised with (your) tax money (see CFL Subsidies).

Life rate varies widely between models, individual lamps and how they are used. Many either burn out prematurely or get so dim with age they have to  be replaced before they burn out. In such cases, savings are not what those ideal numbers promise. But quality has been improved somewhat over the last years since this FAQ was written.

Doesn’t switching the lights on and off use more energy than leaving them running?

No. Switching on an energy efficient bulb only uses the same amount of power as leaving it on for a minute or two. Turning the bulb on and off repeatedly may shorten a bulb’s life but normal use should not do this.

The recommendation from Osram is to leave them on for at least 15 minutes before switching off again. More frequent switching than that may dramatically shorten life.

A study published in 1998 examined CFL performance with five different operating cycles. It found that when the length of time the lamps were on was reduced from 3 hours to 1 hour, the lamp lasted for 80 percent of its rated life. When reduced to 15 min and 5 min, the lamp lasted for 30 percent and 15 percent, respectively, of its rated life.

Even the pro-CFL Energy Saving Trust confirms that frequent switching may reduce CFL life:

Regularly flicking a bulb on for a brief moment and then off again is not recommended as it can shorten the lifetime of the bulb.

See my post CFL Analysis – Life Span for more details and sources.

Does the law require me to replace all my traditional light bulbs immediately?

No; while the intention of both  the UK’s retailer-led voluntary initiative is to phase out the sale of inefficient bulbs in participated retailes, the EU’s mandatory measures under the Energy-using Products Directive will phase out the manufacture and import of inefficient bulbs and retailers will be able to sell on existing stock if they so wish.

So what is the timetable for these bulbs being phased out across the EU?

  • 1 September 2009 – From this date, manufacturers will not be able to place on the market clear lamps equivalent to 100W incandescent lamps, or above, must be minimum C class energy rating (leaving only halogen retrofit halogen lamps). Non-clear (frosted / pearl) lamps must be minimum Energy Label A-class.
  • 1 September 2010 – From this date, manufacturers will not be able to place on the market 75 W clear incandescent lamps.
  • 1 September 2011 – From this date, manufacturers will not be able to place on the market 60 W clear incandescent lamps.
  • 1 September 2012 – From this date, manufacturers will not be able to place on the market all remaining clear incandescent lamps (i.e. 40W and 25W).
  • 1 September 2016 – Raising the minimum level to B class for clear retrofit lamps (i.e. phasing out C-class retrofit halogen lamps).

Where can I find out more?

Page last modified: 29 October 2009
Page published: 11 January 2008