Saturday, August 2, 2008
How safe are CFLs?
Any green-minded person will tell you that we should all replace old-style incandescent light bulbs with energy saving compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). In fact, I wrote about his only recently on this blog. But after a couple of rather disturbing incidences at my house I am now wondering - how safe are they?
The benefits of CFLs over old-style light bulbs are obvious. They are supposed to last much longer than traditional bulbs, and they use up to 80 per cent LESS energy while providing the same amount of light. Over the average life span of a CFL (6000 hours usage per globe) this will save 1.6 tonnes of CO2 emissions and about $176 in energy costs (assuming a price of 10.95c/kW - in fact, we pay more than that). It is no wonder that the previous Howard government decided to phase out incandescent light bulbs over the next number of years.
And you guessed right - all light bulbs in my house are CFLs. Unfortunately, I found that some of the cheaper generic CFLs seemed to dim rather quickly - they were still going after a while, but the light output diminished to a point where it simply felt rather gloomy in the house. Inquiries with some people "in the know" revealed that there are major quality differences between different brands and that the market is not as well regulated and controlled as it should be.
I then gradually replaced the cheap ones with brand name CFLS, such as "Osram" and "Philips". I also received a pack of "Mirabelle" brand CFLs through the NSW carbon reduction scheme.
However, a couple of weeks ago I noticed the typical acrid smell of an electric fire in the sitting room. I couldn't see any fire but the stench was getting stronger and it seemed to be particularly bad just under the light. I thought we must have some problem with the wiring. I turned the lights off, checked outside whether there was smoke coming out somewhere, even crawled up into the attic space - but I couldn't see anything unusual.
The following day I noticed that one of the light bulbs in the sitting room was "dead". When I tried to unscrew it, it cracked at the base, just where the glass goes into the plastic encasing - not good, given that CFLs contain nasty mercury. We quickly evacuated the kids, opened all the windows, I made sure the thing didn't break completely, carefully sealed it in a plastic bag and got rid of it.
Then last week I again noticed this awful smell, this time in the bedroom. I looked up and saw thick black smoke coming out of our ceiling light! By now I was convinced that there must be a major fault in our wiring and I was worried we may end up burning the house down by turning the light on.
So I disabled the power to the lights and got our very nice local electrician to come and have a look at the problem. He unscrewed the lamp, took everything apart - all fine, no problem whatsoever with the wiring. What we did find, however, was that two of the three CFLs in the lamp were partially blackened inside and there were signs that the plastic base had started to melt and burn.
The CFLs had self-destructed! Both were from the "Osram" selection of bulbs. The Philips and Mirabelle lights are still going but I am not holding my breath. Maybe I was just unlucky and this was simply a bad batch. Or maybe this is a major problem of quality control, given that all the CFLs, no matter what fancy brand, are made in the same country that last year produced toothpaste contaminated with highly toxic diethylene glycol and children's toys covered in lead paint.
I intend to write to Osram and let them know about their quality product. But I am also furious with our government for not implementing better quality control measures. This is outright dangerous.
Thankfully, we may not have to live with CFLs for much longer. LEDs (light emitting diodes) are even more energy efficient than CFLs, they last longer, shine brighter and, according to my electrician, they are only a couple of years away from becoming widely available as a standard lighting option.