Expert Warns of Health Risks Associated With New Light Bulbs

Dan Joseph | March 11, 2011 | 8:19am EST
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Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. (AP photo)

( – A lighting expert who has overseen lighting projects including the Statue of Liberty and the Petronas Towers expressed concerns on Capitol Hill Thursday about the safety of certain types of new light bulbs.

Appearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Howard M. Brandston spoke in favor of the "Better Use of Light Bulbs Act" – a measure which would overturn elements of a 2007 law mandating that traditional incandescent light bulbs be phased out over the next few years.

In his testimony, Brandston claimed that parts of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act serve as a “de-facto ban on traditional incandescent light bulbs” and that compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs -- the most popular alternative to ordinary incandescent bulbs -- pose a risk to public health and safety.

(Click here to see a 2009 commentary which addresses those issues.)

 “The compact fluorescent lamp contains mercury,” said Brandston. “One gram of mercury will pollute a two acre pond. This 2007 light bulb standard brings a deadly poison into every residence in our nation.

“We do not have enough knowledge of the potential consequences of being continuously exposed to the electromagnetic field that compact florescent lamps emit. There are millions of people in this country with lupus, an auto-immune disease.  Exposure to low doses of light from these lamps causes a severe rash.”

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) expressed similar concerns, during his questioning of the panel.

“Has anybody looked at the EPA recommendations put out in January 25, 2011 about what you do if one of these mercury light bulbs break in your home?” Risch asked.

“In Idaho, we’ve had a number of instances where they’ve had a mercury spill in a science laboratory -- or something in the laboratory in the school -- and they immediately closed the school down for, I don’t know, a number of days while they cleaned it up,” he pointed out.

“Can you imagine mercury bulbs throughout a school?  I mean, any time a kid wants a day off he’s going to break a mercury light bulb and that’s going to shut that school down -- and if they don’t they’re going to have trouble with the EPA, according to what has to happen to clean it up,” Risch added.

Brandston, part of a six-person panel testifying on the legislation, also issued warnings about the safety of LED (light-emitting diode) lamps, another alternative to incandescent light bulbs, saying that not enough research has been done to guarantee the safety of consumers who are exposed to the bulbs.

“When we look at the future of LEDs we have not yet discovered all of the ramifications of that,” said Brandston.  “The French have found that the output of these lamps is harming the vision of young children.  Why aren’t we doing epidemiology studies on that? They contain arsenic and other poisonous materials.  Why aren’t we looking at that?

“Why don’t we know that when you throw one of those CFLs in the trash the mercury changes to methyl mercury, which is a deadly poison -- which if it gets into our water supply will be a danger?”

However, panel member Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, dismissed Brandston’s concerns, claiming that the mercury needed to power old-fashioned incandescent bulbs poses more of a health and environmental risk than that contained within the CFLs.

“The biggest source of mercury in our environment, human-caused mercury, is from power production,” Nadel said. “If you use the conventional incandescent lamp, I believe the EPA found that you would emit 5.5 grams of mercury into the atmosphere; that then goes into the water. It can go into the fish and be ingested.

“With the CFL -- and this is EPA data -- there’s only 1.6 milligrams of mercury that goes into the environment.  Most of that has to do with -- even a CFL results in some power production, I think 0.4 grams of mercury EPA found typically goes into the environment from the bulb itself.  So, it’s not that one has mercury and one doesn’t.  They both have mercury and frankly the incandescent has more.”

Besides safety and health concerns, Branston, the only proponent of the "Better Use of Light Bulbs Act" on the panel, also cited concerns that eliminating incandescent bulbs would cost the nation jobs, put a cost burden on businesses -- many of which will have to update lighting fixtures that are incompatible with the newer bulb -- pose a fire hazard, lower the quality of the light emitted and be an unnecessary government intrusion on the free-market.

Supporters of CFLs and LEDs say they would significantly lower energy consumption in the United States and are more cost efficient than their incandescent counterparts.

The Energy Independence and Security Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush requires roughly 25 percent greater efficiency for light bulbs by 2014. Opponents argue that this will effectively ban the sale of most current incandescent light bulbs.

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