Blog Posts | Pembina Institute

Federal government backtracks on lightbulb regulations

Blog - June 6, 2011 - By Jesse Row

Some say banning old-fashioned lightbulbs — the incandescent kind — could be bad for our health, believing a shift to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) will mean more exposure to mercury, ultra-violet (UV) radiation and electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Unfortunately, it might be this belief that could cause the most harm.

Following the lead of governments around the world, Canada is scheduled to begin to phase out inefficient incandescent bulbs in 2012. Now the federal government says that proposal should wait another two years until they can respond to the perceived health concerns related to CFLs.

This despite studies by Health Canada and other major health organizations that show CFLs do not cause increased health risks from UV radiation or EMFs. According to their website, "Health Canada has studied UV radiation and EMF emission levels from CFLs. The study determined that CFLs, if used as directed, do not currently pose a health hazard to the general population from UV radiations and EMF emission levels."

Both sides of the lightbulb debate  — those for scrapping old fashioned incandescents and those that want to keep them — have stated the same goals: protecting public health. So how can we find a common solution? The truth of the matter is that it is the amount of energy we are currently consuming to generate electricity, not lightbulbs, that poses the most serious public health risk.

compact fluorescent lightbulbYes, CFLs contain mercury, which is true of regular fluorescent lightbulbs — although CFLs have it in much lower amounts simply because they're smaller. If a bulb is broken or thrown in the trash, it's true that mercury will be released and it is hazardous. Yet, pollution released from coal-fired power plants used to generate electricity releases mercury and other pollutants into the atmosphere in much larger quantities than CFLs ever could.

CFLs are three to four times more efficient than regular bulbs, meaning three to four times less power use. Multiply lightbulb use across the country and at least one major coal-fired power plant wouldn't be needed and could be taken offline with a switch to CFLs. So while CFLs do pollute when broken or trashed, our current energy use pollutes much more, not to mention there are simple solutions to ensure proper disposal of CFLs.

We should also keep in mind that pollution saved from power plants doesn't just benefit provinces that use coal for electricity generation. The pollution from these plants crosses borders and, particularly with mercury, it can travel vast distances.

Neither are CFLs the only energy efficient form of lighting. Once incandescent lightbulbs are phased out people will have even more choices for lighting: they can use halogen bulbs or light emitting diodes (LEDs), for example. This is not to mention that with new regulations in place, new lighting technologies are sure to emerge giving people even more choices when it comes to efficient lighting,

To their credit, the federal government has started to regulate the amount of mercury allowed in bulbs and is working with retailers to improve collection and disposal of CFLs. Nonetheless, the government itself estimates that the two-year delay will result in a number of negative consequences on top of air pollution, including:

  • 24 billion kilowatt hours of wasted electricity,
  • $303 million in extra costs for consumers, and
  • 13 million tonnes of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.

However trivial lightbulb regulation may seem, the health benefits from energy conservation are anything but. The unfortunate reality is that the government admits that the proposal to delay efficiency regulations has more to do with making critics happy than it does with any real health threat posed from CFLs.

That's why the Pembina Institute has submitted comments to Natural Resources Canada recommending the government stick with its original timeline to phase out incandescent lightbulbs — to do otherwise would be a dim approach to public health in Canada.

Jesse Row

Jesse is an energy efficiency programs expert for the Pembina Institute. He is based in Calgary.

frank — Aug 01, 2012 - 04:49 PM MT

CFL manufacurers lobbied US Govt. to phase out incandescent bulbs, to save energy, but I am glad Canadian Govt. has postponed this for another 2 years. As noted above for most of Canada, for 9 to 10 months of the year, we need the heat produced by incandscent bulbs to warm the house, factories and work places, so energy is not " wasted'. Initial cost of CFL may take several years to recoup, so where is the saving ? CFL's produce more generae powerful elctromagnetic fields (EMF's), particularly closeby and should never be used for bedside lamps. Also it has been confirmed that EMFs travel along electrical circuits throughout the house and the socalled dirty elctricity can cause cancer, not to mention the small amout ultravioloet rays, emited by CFls
causeing increased skin cancer and reduced melatonin atnight causing sleep disturbance. Lastly EMF;s reach computer screens, etc causing increased hazard to computer users.

Cheopx — Aug 16, 2011 - 09:01 PM MT

Given the fact that there are serious issues with CFLs, including out-of-unity consumption (requires the utility generate more power than is billed), RF interference, mercury, bad CRI, expense, and poor performance in the cold the phase out should be completely dropped. If these bulbs cannot perform on merit alone, then it's obviously a bad choice.

Efficiency is good, and I'm very interested in using LED technology (cannot use fluorescent -- you know it triggers migraines in a good number of people, right?) it's still far too expensive to be practical.

Dave Mussell — Jul 04, 2011 - 03:44 PM MT

I can see the energy consumption benefits of CFLs, and can agree that even if they break during disposal, they pollute less than coal-fired power plants as a source of mercury, but I am concerned that their stated service life is nowhere near what we get in practice because of problems with the fixtures they are installed in. CFLs contain sensitive electronics materials that do not respond well to high temperatures. When placed in enclosed fixtures designed originally for incandescents, they fail prematurely, often in less time than the incandescents they replace.

The real benefits of CFLs will be realized when lighting fixtures that are designed for them also become available and are installed along with long-life CFLs. In the longer run, we should be looking for technologies even more efficient than CFLs, which in their original tubular form, are nearly as old a technology as incandescent bulbs. LED lights are by far the most efficient, but again, their availability and suitable fixtures are both lacking in the market.

Martin Weatherall — Jun 09, 2011 - 10:21 AM MT

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs cause high frequency pollution (known as dirty electricity) to travel around the electrical wiring of a house and re-radiate throughout the house. There are scientific links which indicate that dirty electricity electricity causes cancer and many other serious adverse health effects.

Incandescent light bulbs do not cause this kind of danger. In the cooler and cold months, incandescent light bulbs are 100% effecient because they not only light a room, but they also add heat.

If you use CFLs in the winter you have to add that missing heat from other sources, so they are not nearly as efficient as mentioned in the article.

Alden — Jun 07, 2011 - 12:03 PM MT

I am glad the Federal Government is postponing it's incandescent light bulb ban until 2014. In fact they should postpone it forever until a safe source of lighting can be found. We all know CFL's will wind up in the landfill by the thousands, releasing mercury. You should also keep a safe distance away from them because of UV rays.

LED lights have their issues as well containing high levels of carcinogenic toxins.

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