Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) Emit Radiation, Contain Mercury-Truth! & Misleading!

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) Emit Radiation, Contain Mercury-Truth! & Misleading!  

Summary of eRumor: 

Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are radioactive and add more toxicity to the environment than regular light bulbs because they contain mercury.

The Truth: 

This one is true, false and misleading all at once.

There is truth in claims that CFLs give off ultraviolet (UV) radiation and contain mercury, but studies show that those concerns have been exaggerated.

The debate over CFLs started in 2007 after President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act into law. The bill required screw-based light blubs to use fewer watts for similar brightness by 2014 to save energy. The bill also requires most light bulbs to be 60-70% more efficient than regular incandescent light bulbs by 2020.

Many have interpreted the law to mean that consumers must use CFLs, but that isn’t the case. The law doesn’t restrict the types of light bulbs that can be sold, just the amount of energy they use. Right now, CFLs and LEDs meet the 2020 energy requirement, according to the bill. But that doesn’t mean more options won’t be available by 2020.

Claims that CFLs are radioactive and toxic have been around since Congress introduced the bill. A page posted on the website Live Leak provides one example:

“Consider this – instead of saving the environment, CFLs are actually destroying it. CFLs should be thought of as toxic technology, when mercury contamination, ultraviolet radiation, and radio frequency radiation are factored in. From cradle to grave, CFLs pose a danger to people’s health and well being, as well as adding even more toxicity to the environment. In fact, CFLs do not reduce a person’s carbon footprint and may even increase it in some situations. To make matters even worse, CFLs emit harmful levels of electromagnetic radiation. “

Let’s take a look at each of these claims.

First, it’s true that CFLs emit ultra-violet (UV) radiation. Researchers at Stony Brook University found that UV leaked from cracks in the phosphor coatings on CFLs. Their study found that CFLs should not be used at close distances and should be placed behind glass covers. The UV radiation was on par with what is given off by standard fluorescent lights, so the risk for skin damage is not great.

There is also a small amount of mercury in CFLs, as the eRumor claims. If a bulb breaks, there is some risk of mercury exposure, but, again, it’s not great, the National Institutes of Health reports:

“’The amount of mercury gas coming off (broken CFLs) is over a milligram over a few days. If you put that milligram into a poorly ventilated room, the concentration can be over the recommended limit for children,” says Robert Hurt, the director of the Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation. ‘The overall risk is low, but it’s not zero risk, and there is definitely an opportunity to do better.’

“…Hurt’s research suggests that the peak for escaping mercury vapor lasts a few hours. The group also found that plastic bags leaked mercury vapor. ‘This new information may allow for modeling of airborne mercury concentrations following breakage, thus providing the capability to more fully assess the effectiveness of cleanup,’ says Roxanne Smith, a press officer for the EPA.”

The EPA’s tips for cleaning up broken CFLs can be found here.

Finally, the claim that CFLs add more toxicity to the environment than regular bulbs because of their mercury content is false. CFLs actually reduce the amount of mercury entering the environment because less energy is required to use them. That means less mercury-emitting coal needs to be burned, the National Institutes of Health reports.