UL Spreads the Word on CFL Safety, Disposal

While consumers are highly receptive to compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), conflicting messages about CFLs are leaving people confused about the safety of the lamps, specifically regarding mercury and end-of-life issues when the lamp burns out.

"Because of the energy-saving benefits, it's no surprise many consumers are seeking out CFLs," said John Drengenberg, consumer affairs manager, Underwriters Laboratories (UL). "As with any new product purchase, it's important that consumers understand how the product works and how to properly use it."

Incandescent light bulbs burn out with a pop, a flash and, when shaken, the familiar rattle confirming that the bulb needs to be changed. "The burn out of a CFL is different. The light dims over time and might produce a more dramatic pop, emit a distinct odor, and maybe even release some smoke," said Drengenberg.

In some cases, Drengenberg said that the plastic at the base of a CFL can turn black, but comments that this is also normal in most cases, as safety standards require the use of special flame retardant plastics in the base that do not burn or drop particles.

"CFLs are one of the products that we regularly test and investigate to specific UL requirements for electrical safety, fire, and shock hazards," he said. "Any popping sounds or smoke that a consumer might see when a CFLs burns out means that the bulb's end-of-life mechanism worked as it should have."

Experts also note that many brand-name manufacturers are now incorporating innovative end-of-life mechanisms into CFLs that cause the bulbs to burn out more like the traditional incandescent bulbs.

CFLs contain about 5 milligrams of mercury that is sealed within the glass tubing. (Older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury, the equivalent of 100 CFLs.)

Mercury is what allows the lamp to turn on. No mercury is released when the lamps are intact or in use, and if the lamp is disposed of properly, mercury in CFLs shouldn't be a safety hazard. In fact, consumers are more likely to suffer an injury installing the CFL, rather than from the CFL itself.

"In general, people are not injured by light bulbs, but instead are injured by falling off a ladder, for example, while installing the light bulb," Drengenberg said, "And whether the consumer uses a CFL or incandescent bulb has no relevance to the type of injury."

Drengenberg goes on to explain that CFLs are just another piece of technology to be aware of, like any other electronics in the house. Still, manufacturers recognize the negativity often associated with mercury and are working to reduce mercury in florescent lighting products.

Because CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, they should be recycled rather than thrown out in the trash. Additionally, special considerations should be taken if a CFL should accidently break. Energy StarĀ® created a fact sheet that provides recommendations for cleaning up and disposing of a broken CFL. Manufacturers often provide additional information.

CFLs aren't the only energy-saving lighting option available today. Consumers also can purchase light emitting diodes, or LEDs, which are small light sources illuminated by the movement of electrons through a semiconductor material.

LEDs produce more light per watt than incandescent bulbs, making them exceptionally energy efficient. In fact, many LEDs use up to 90 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb to produce the same amount of light.

"CFLs are in the mature stage of development whereas LEDs are an emerging technology," Drengenberg said. "Like all electronics, energy-saving lighting technologies are constantly evolving and LEDs, in particular, are one type of technology that continues to be fine-tuned."

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