Light bulb

Farewell to the light bulb

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

Following in the footsteps of Cuba, Australia stands on the verge of becoming the second country to phase out the traditional bulb-shaped incandescent light globe due to its comparative inefficiency.


Incandescent bulbs, whose appearance has changed little since their invention back in 1879, waste 97.5% of their energy as heat. Many other countries, including Ireland, Italy and the Philippines, are pursuing similar phase-out plans.

From November of this year, imports of incandescent bulbs into Australia will be banned, and remaining incandescents will be removed from retail sale a year later in November 2009. From then onwards, only lighting products achieving a certain level of efficiency will reach the marketplace. Although some energy efficient halogen lamps are expected to make the cut-off, the inevitable outcome is that soon most people will be buying compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs.)

A more efficient option

Introduced around 1980, the original compact fluorescents were bulky items and produced visible flicker, which has fortunately been removed by technological improvements. Compact fluorescent lamps work by sending current from an electronic ballast through a gas-filled tube, causing it to emit ultraviolet light. This excites a phosphor coating on the inside of the tube, which sheds a diffuse light within the visual spectrum.

These lamps enjoy broad support from green groups, which see their energy advantages and climate benefits as outweighing any negatives. Although the retail price is around $3 to $6 more than for an incandescent, during its lifetime a CFL will achieve energy savings of around 80%, slashing a significant amount from household electricity bills. In recent years, some companies operating in Australia have been giving away free CFLs in exchange for carbon credits.

Compact fluorescent lamps have an expected life of around 6,000 to 15,000 hours, as opposed to 1,000 to 2,500 hours for incandescents. Because the lifespan of the lamp’s electronic ballast is shortened by switching on and off, compact fluorescents work best where lighting is needed continuously over longer periods. Some bloggers believe that CFLs last longer when inserted base-down; if inserted base-up, heat rising from the bulb will affect the electronics, and shorten the bulb’s life.

When it comes to choosing a CFL, its wattage is supposed to be approximately a fifth of the incandescent equivalent. To be on the safe side, Choice recommends dividing the wattage of an incandescent by four to ensure adequate lighting. Some lamps take a little while to reach their full brightness, and this warming-up process is far slower in cold temperatures. It is best to assume that a CFL is incompatible with dimmer switches unless labelled otherwise. The Federal Government hopes that as the technology advances, a greater range of dimmable options will become available.

A further issue when making a purchase decision is what is known as ‘colour temperature.’ Compact fluorescent lamps cover a range of colour temperatures, and consumers are no longer restricted to the bluish ‘cool white’ that conjures up images of shops, offices and hospitals. The most popular choice for homes is ‘warm white’, a colour that balances white and yellow.

The mercury problem

In some quarters, a fair amount of concern has been expressed at the mercury content of compact fluorescent lamps, which is never mentioned on the packaging. Such a warning message obviously needs to be made mandatory to ensure that the public is not unnecessarily put at risk in the case of breakage.

A highly toxic element, mercury is contained in the gas, and is essential to the lamp’s functioning. However, it has also been pointed out that the quantity of mercury found in a CFL is far smaller than the amount released when a coal-fired power station generates the electricity to power an incandescent bulb. Unlike in the case of power stations, the mercury contained in CFLs can be recycled to prevent it from entering the environment. Furthermore, lamp mercury levels are slowly dropping as the technology advances.

It is worth taking care to avoid breaking these lamps, which is more likely in households with young children. When fitting a CFL, avoid twisting the glass coils, which can crack and break under pressure, releasing the contents inside. If a CFL is accidentally broken, the following steps are suggested for carrying out a cleanup:

  • Ventilate the room.
  • Vacate it for around 15 minutes to avoid inhaling the mercury vapour.
  • Avoid using a dustpan and brush or vacuum cleaner, as these will spread the mercury and increase exposure.
  • Using rubber gloves, put the large pieces of glass in a container with a screw lid. If none is available, wrap up in newspaper.
  • Using thick paper, remove smaller glass pieces and phosphorus dust.
  • Pick up finer particles using a thick tape such as masking tape, and use a damp cloth or paper towel to pick up the finest particles.
  • Put all waste and materials used for the clean-up in a sealable plastic bag, which later goes into the garbage.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Ventilate the room for another few hours.

The US states of Vermont and Massachusetts both go so far as to recommend partial removal of the carpet in cases of breakage where infants or pregnant women use the room. Infants are particularly vulnerable to neurological damage from mercury exposure.

For unbroken lamps, the Government’s basic advice is to put them in the garbage, wrapped in newspaper to minimise the chances of breakage and landfill contamination. However, not everybody thinks this is a good idea. Many local councils offer recycling facilities, and urge people to recycle the lamps instead of having them landfilled. For people without any recycling opportunities nearby, it is probably worth asking your council to introduce them.

If you have bulk quantities of CFLs or fluorescent tubes, recycling companies CMA Ecocycle and Chemsal can arrange collection from most parts of Australia.

Radiation and lighting concerns

Some people are strongly affected by low levels of electromagnetic radiation, including the radiofrequency emissions from CFLs that are capable of interfering with nearby electronic equipment. The group EMR Australia considers that the lamps are not healthy for household use.

Numerous users seem to dislike the light that compact fluorescent lamps emit, and sometimes for a tangible reason. Light sources are sometimes measured according to a ‘colour rendering index’, where 100 is equivalent to sunlight. Incandescent bulbs emit a wide range of colours, and have an index of nearly 100, making them comfortable to use for task lighting. In contrast, cool white compact fluorescent lamps have an index of only 63, and may promote eyestrain, eye fatigue, headaches and stress. Unfortunately, as the CFL index rises, lamps become less efficient and more expensive to produce because they require multiple phosphor layers.

Due to the ultraviolet light emissions from CFLs, people with UV light sensitive conditions such as migraines, epilepsy and the auto-immune disease lupus may experience a worsening of their symptoms. The Australasian College of Dermatologists points out that these health issues affect tens of thousands of Australians. According to the British Association of Dermatologists, light wavelengths emitted by CFLs are capable of triggering eczema and skin cancer among light-sensitive people.

In the UK, the Spectrum alliance, whose participants include groups representing people with these conditions, has been expressing concerns about a planned incandescent phase-out across the EU. Spectrum believes that once compact fluorescent lamps appear nearly everywhere, those who are negatively affected by exposure to them may suffer from serious social exclusion.

Flicker is another factor often raised. However, unlike fluorescent tubes whose flicker rate at 100 times per second can be irritating, we are told that modern compact fluorescent lamps flicker at around 20,000 times per second, beyond the threshold of perception, and that if a CFL is noticeably flickering, it has developed a fault. Nevertheless, some people are convinced that this imperceptible high-speed flicker causes them discomfort.

Environment Minister Peter Garrett has said that for people avoiding compact fluorescent lamps, some halogen bulbs will remain available: unfortunately these tend to come with a stiff price tag. He has also suggested that groups representing people with photosensitive conditions may receive special import licences to enable the distribution of incandescents to their members. Where a condition (such as electrosensitivity) is not recognised by the authorities, sufferers may need to stockpile the lower-radiation incandescents before they disappear from the shelves.

In the future, it seems likely that governments will be increasingly pressured to adopt tough and swift measures in response to climate change, as the scientific predictions worsen. While such action is welcome, there is always the risk that any one-size-fits-all policy will negatively affect certain groups of people. Hopefully, this will not be the case.



Government incandescent phase-out information site

CFL recycling opportunities

CMA Ecocyle


Spectrum (light sensitive conditions lobby group)

About the author

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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