CFLs are fluorescent lights designed to replace incandescent light bulbs, fitting into the fixtures designed for incandescent bulbs. The CFL’s tube is curved or folded to fit into the space of an incandescent bulb. The CFL bulb has a compact electronic ballast in the base of that regulates electric current to the lamp.
Longer Life and Lower Energy Use
CFLs cost more than incandescent bulbs that give the same amount of light but they use only one-fifth to one-third the electric power, and last eight to fifteen times longer than incandescent bulbs.
CFLs became available in the late 1970s and sales of the bulbs increased steadily through the 1980s.
The issue with CFLs occurs as the bulb ages and degrades. The ballast can overheat, but when this happens, the voltage dependent resistor (VDR) opens, shutting off the circuit. This shut-off generates heat, often creating a small amount of smoke and a burning smell, but the VDR and fire-inhibiting chemicals in the bulb’s housing should prevent a fire hazard. But if the ballast is faulty, the CFL may explode and cause a fire.
In 2011, more than 300,000 compact fluorescent bulbs from Telstar Products were recalled because they could overheat and possibly cause a fire, according to the company and federal authorities. General Electric, Trisonic, and Phillips Lighting also recalled CFLs because of the fire hazard.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said Telstar had received two reports of fires. In one instance, the fire was contained to the light fixture; in the other, the fire spread to the home, Consumer Reports reported. Reports of CFLs overheating and smoking have occurred since the bulbs became common in households. In 2011, the CPSC created a CFL complaint database.
One CFL manufacturer said, “At end of life, one or more of the electronic components inside the self-ballasted lamp no longer functions, which in very rare instances may result in an odor, smoke, or darkening of the plastic enclosure near the base of the bulb.”
Mercury in CFLs a Health Hazard
There is some dispute about how serious the CFL fire risk is. But the health hazards of mercury exposure are well established. CFLs contain mercury, which is released as vapor when the glass tube is broken.
Symptoms of mercury poisoning may include muscle weakness, poor coordination, numbness of hands and feet, rashes, memory problems, trouble speaking, trouble hearing, or trouble seeing. The severity of symptoms depends on dose of mercury and the method and duration of exposure. Exposure in children may result in acrodynia (pink’s disease) in which the skin becomes pink and peels. Long-term complications may include kidney problems and decreased intelligence.
The consumption of fish is the most significant source of ingestion-related mercury exposure in humans, although plants and livestock also contain mercury due to mercury from seawater, freshwater, marine and lake sediments, soils, and atmosphere, and due to ingesting other mercury-containing organisms. Exposure to mercury can occur from breathing contaminated air, from eating foods with mercury residues acquired during processing, from exposure to mercury vapor in mercury amalgam dental fillings, and from improper use or disposal of mercury and mercury-containing objects, for example, improper disposal of fluorescent lamps.
Each CFL contains only a small amount of mercury, but because mercury is so dangerous, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers strict guidelines for how to clean up a mercury spill. The EPA recommends opening windows and doors to air out the room. Heating and air conditioning should be turned off and left off for a few hours.
Vacuuming is not recommended unless broken glass remains after all other cleanup steps have been taken. Vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor.
The EPA advises scooping up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard, then using sticky tape to pick up remaining small glass fragments and powder. Damp paper towels or wet wipes should be used on hard surfaces. All cleanup materials—including the vacuum cleaner bag, if the vacuum has been used—should be placed in a glass jar or sealed plastic bag and disposed of according to local regulations for disposing of mercury containing materials.