Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Are Compact Florescent Lights (CFL’s) really green or just Green washing?

Currently it is mostly widely accepted that Compact Florescent lighting (also known as “CFL’s”) is the way to go to reduce energy. David Suzuki, Canada’s foremost environmental advocate, has been pushing people to switch from regular incandescent lights to CFL’s through government-sponsored advertising. CFL’s use less energy than regular light bulbs which leads to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from coal powered plants and non-renewable energy sources. Most are so convinced about the benefits of these light bulbs that governments in a variety of countries are implementing a ban on incandescent lights and promoting the use of CFL’s instead (Australia being the leader in the movement). However, some researchers and scientist are looking a little more into this movement and finding some pretty interesting impacts from the use of CFL’s.

In order for something to be considered really “green” it should have a closed loop cycle. It would appear that Compact Florescent lighting with their mercury content doesn’t fit into this category. Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal in even small amounts. It leaches into the soil and into water systems from different sources and is toxic to all mammals (that includes us humans). Dropping a CFL bulb can be extremely toxic to those doing the clean up even if done properly.

Because CFL’s only contain 5mg of mercury, in Canada we don’t recognize them as hazardous material and are not forced to dispose of them as such. However, in Europe, 5mg of mercury is considered hazardous and all things containing this amount of mercury or higher must be disposed of as hazardous material. Our Government’s continuous lack of standards when it comes to heavy metal toxicity is not only detrimental to our health and the environment, products such as CFL’s don’t come with proper warning labels to advise those who use them of the dangers they could possibly pose. Nor do CFL’s come with messaging regarding their proper disposal after use. Luckily there are businesses that recognize one of these issues and offer a recycling centre for them (such as Home Depot).

There are also some health concerns with these light bulbs, although considered minor it can be an annoyance to the person who suffers from the health related problems. Some people will experience headaches, migraines, and visions problems due to the type of light emitted from these bulbs. All of these symptoms have been know for a long time when it comes to any florescent light. For those who are sensitive to electromagnetic radiation (a health issue not openly recognized in North America but recognized as disability in some European countries), these lights can cause symptoms of headaches, nausea, aches and pains, sleep problems, depression and anxiety. Although these health-related issues may seem minor to some, for those experiencing them it can be rather overwhelming especially knowing that soon they will have no choice but to buy the bulbs that are the cause of their discomfort. A study in the UK also showed that those who sit too closely to the lights for a period of an hour or more a day (sitting closely to a reading lamp) could experience the same radiation produced from the sun. (Health Canada testing compact fluorescent bulbs for harmful radiation http://www.cbc.ca/consumer/story/2009/01/21/bulbs.html)

CFL’s are not even made for northern climates. Anything below –15 Celsius is not recommended, so for those who use them for outdoor lights in our Canadian climate they are pretty much useless for the darkest part of the year. There have been studies showing an increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to the use of CFL’s because people are heating their houses more because CFL’s don’t produce as much heat as regular light bulbs so we don’t benefit from our regular light bulbs aiding in heating our homes. (Do CFL’s Save? http://www.cbc.ca/national/blog/video/consumer_watch/do_cfl_bulbs_save.html) So instead of benefiting from this heat we have to rely on using more electricity, natural gas, oil & wood stoves to heat our homes. CFL’s benefit southern climates much more as they reduce heat and the need for air conditioners, it only benefits northern climates on the hottest days of the summer. So why would forcing people to convert from regular bulbs to CFL’s in Canada really benefit us when some studies are showing the opposite?

Using CFL’s in places such as closets & bathrooms is also not very beneficial as they take approximately 3 minutes before they become energy efficient. As most people only turn the lights on briefly in these and similar locations, the CFL’s are using the same amount of energy as incandescent light bulbs. The only solution to this problem is leaving lights on in these areas instead of turning them off after leaving the room. This solution goes against the concept of turning lights off when not in a room to save energy.

Some researchers say the new HD LED technology is the possible solution, however it is very expensive and may contribute to the same issues with heating in the winter. Some say sticking with our current incandescent light bulbs and learning to shut off unnecessary lights is the best way to go.

I say that we start doing some more research into this issue to find out if CFL use might constitute greenwashing by being dangerous to our health, and problematic from an environmental standpoint. We should be looking at the big picture before jumping feet first into unlimited and government-required CFL use here in Canada. This must be done in a complete unbiased manner, which is not always the case when looking at new products that are supposed to improve our lives. Importantly, this type of complete assessment is something we should do with all new “green” technologies to make sure we don’t put ourselves into the same mess we’re already in, or go even further into that mess!

Sources & Further reading:

As the Light Dims: http://www.alive.com/6923a17a2.php?subject_bread_cramb=59
Dirty Electricity: http://www.dirtyelectricity.ca/
Dana Clark,
Organizing Chair, Sudbury Federal Green Party Association
Communications Chair, Sudbury Green Party of Ontario CA

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