Shopper's Guide to Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs
Saturday, December 27, 2008

Shopper's Guide to Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Resolving to save money? And the planet? Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs promise a win-win: according to the industry and U.S. government's Energy Star program, which promotes CFL bulbs and other substitutes for energy-hogging incandescents, a CFL uses 75 percent less energy than its incandescent counterpart, lasts up to 10 times longer and prevents more than 450 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere.

Over its lifetime, a single CFL can save the consumer $80 or more, depending on local electric rates.

But all CFL bulbs aren't equal. Some have lower mercury content than others, and some last much longer. Unfortunately, you can't tell the best of the best by their labels - or the U.S. government Energy Star logo. Some Energy Star labelled bulbs could not be legally sold in Europe due to excessive mercury content.

An Environmental Working Group investigation has identified 7 bulb lines made by Earthmate, Litetronics, Sylvania, Feit, MaxLite and Philips that trump the rest. These bulbs, listed in our Green Lighting Guide contain a fraction of the toxic mercury allowed by Energy Star, reducing the mercury contamination from a broken bulb. All last 8-15,000 hours, dramatically longer than the Energy Star standard of 6,000 hours, and also offer high efficiency.

President Obama says his energy strategy and economic stimulus plan will focus on moving toward use of CFLs and other energy-efficient lighting sources. "We can save huge amounts of energy costs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil by simple things like weatherization and changing the lighting in major buildings," Obama said on Meet the Press Dec. 6. "That's going to be part of our economic recovery plan. It actually allows us to spend some money, put some people to work right away, but it also creates a long- term, sustainable energy future."

CFL use in U.S. households has reached a new high: 1 bulb in 4 sold in the 3rd quarter of 2008 was a CFL.

The trend toward CFL use is welcome. But Energy Star and its parent agencies -- the Department of Energy (DOE) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-- have not adequately addressed the risks of mercury in CFL bulbs.

Launched in 1982 as an energy-efficiency rating system, Energy Star has driven development of energy-saving appliances and consumer products. But under the Bush administration, Energy Star drifted to the rear, becoming a passive partner of the electrical industry. EWG's best bulbs carry the Energy Star logo - but so do a lot of average and even sub-par bulbs. The program deploys a trailing-edge incentive structure that rewards stragglers as handsomely as innovators.

The Obama administration must reinvigorate Energy Star, using its marketing cachet and other incentives to push low-toxin energy efficiency in lighting. Stricter mercury standards for CFL bulbs could encourage wary consumers to buy more of them and speed the transition away from wasteful incandescent bulbs. EWG recommends:

  • Lowering the maximum mercury content in each CFL bulb to 3 miligrams (mg). This measure would save 225 pounds of mercury for every 100 million bulbs.

  • Creating a tiered ("Platinum," "Gold," "Silver") rating system to reward creative companies that produce the highest efficiency, longest-lived bulbs with the lowest mercury content.

  • Updating minimum requirements every 2 years instead of every 5 years, to take advantage of rapidly changing technology and fierce competition among bulb makers vying for bigger shares of the green-products market.

  • Adopt an independently verifiable mercury content limit for CFL bulbs. Energy Star requires only that the manufacturers file a statement about bulb mercury content with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.

Energy Star updates: Too little, too late

Energy Star's 2008 standards, unveiled last March as a replacement for 2003 specifications, proposed to ratchet up energy efficiency requirements, tighten other performance measures and, for the first time, set a cap on bulb mercury content.

The 2008 specs were scheduled to take effect December 2nd. But in mid-October, DOE officials made a concession to industry officials because of the souring economy: they postponed the 2008 standards for a 6-month "grace period" to July 1, 2009, so that the U.S. inventory of about 100 million bulbs fabricated under 2003 specs could be sold off. EWG research shows that 1 in 3 can't meet 2008 standards for efficiency and life span.

Even when Energy Star's 2008 standards become effective next July, they will leave consumers in the dark about several key facts about CFL mercury content:

  • Product labels must disclose that the bulbs contain mercury -- but not how much. Consumers have a right to know exactly how much mercury is in various brands.

  • Energy Star's 5 mg mercury cap is twice as high as necessary. In March 2007, in an effort to blunt consumer concerns about mercury, a potent neurotoxin, members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) issued a voluntary "commitment" to their customers to limit mercury content in most CFL bulbs to 5 mg. A year later, Energy Star adopted the 5 mg cap as its own. Meanwhile, however, manufacturers aware of consumer concerns were competing to lower bulb mercury content. EPA and NEMA estimate the industry-wide average is between 3 and 4 mg. EWG's best bulbs contain just 1 to 2.7 mg of mercury. The 5 mg cap is virtually obsolete now; putting it into effect next July is pointless.

  • Some U.S. bulbs that proudly bear the Energy Star seal of approval can't be legally sold in Europe, where the European Union has capped mercury content at 4 mg per bulb for CFLs. Under the new Energy Star criteria, bulbs larger than 25 watts can contain up to 6 mg of mercury.

EWG believes that CFL bulbs are a promising technology to reduce energy consumption and pollution associated with it. Mercury pollution from broken bulbs is offset, and more, by larger gains from energy conservation. Coal-fired electrical plants are a major source of mercury emissions, totaling 104 tons of mercury across the U.S. annually. Energy Star calculates that each CFL bulb generates 70 percent less mercury pollution than a comparable incandescent bulb.

But at present, only a handful of bulb makers offer truly superior products with high efficiency, longevity and mercury content of 1 to 2.7 mg -- about a quarter to a half of the Energy Star mercury cap.

The Obama Administration should award the Energy Star logo far more selectively, as a carrot to speed research and development on the next generation of CFLs and other alternatives to incandescent bulbs that, according to DOE, convert 90 percent of the energy they consume to heat.