Friday, February 11, 2011

Are compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) a fire risk? Can they catch fire? Are they dangerous?

Just now a warning email came through one of the mailing lists I'm on. It was one of those friendly warnings meant to inform us of a risky thing many of us are doing. It talked about a CFL light bulb danger. The writer witnessed a CFL catch fire and oh my gosh it was lucky s/he was right there or it could have been a horrible fire. It concluded claiming that these compact fluorescent lights (CFL) are dangerous and we'd better wait for LED bulbs rather than switch to CFL's. I've written about this before (see: 'Green' lightbulbs poison workers) but it seems appropos to write about it yet again.

There's a lot of fearism going around centered around CFL lights. They have mercury, mercury is dangerous, so if we want to be green we should stop using CFL's. Or, there's horrible mining conditions in China because of CFL's, that's bad, we don't want to be responsible for that badness, so we should stop using CFL's. etc... I wonder whether there is a disinformation campaign going on by the incandescent bulb industry to discredit CFL's? Or maybe it's the electricity industry instead who want to maintain sales of electricity?

To reiterate my earlier blog post:-

  • Electricity generation is usually done from fossil fuels, which themselves emit mercury into the environment. The reduced electricity use reduces mercury emissions by more than is in the bulb.
  • The danger of mercury mining in China is probably more to do with lax safety regulations than CFL bulbs. There are known practices to mine mercury safely, and it's a shame that the Chinese can't get it together to do this safely.
  • Mercury is a dangerous substance anyway, and we should strive to eliminate its use anyway

FWIW I have started buying LED bulbs but not because of any risk from CFL's (I've been using CFL's since 1990) but because LED bulbs are even more efficient. I started using CFL's in 1990 because of efficiency, and I'm always looking for the most efficient means for anything.

This particular email struck me as a mild form of that fearism. I pasted a couple sentences from the letter into my favorite search engine, and the top result was a posting with the exact same wording. Yes, this was one of those email chain-letters that get passed around.

The text reads (analysis below the text):-

Below is a picture of a CFL light bulb from my bathroom. I turned it on the other day and then smelled smoke after a few minutes. Four inch flames were spewing out of the side of the ballast like a blow torch! I immediately turned off the lights. But I'm sure it would have caused a fire if I was not right there. Imagine if the kids had left the lights on as usual when they were not in the room.

I took the bulb to the Fire Department to report the incident. The Fireman wasn't at all surprised and said that it was not an uncommon occurrence. Apparently, sometimes when the bulb burns out there is a chance that the ballast can start a fire. He told me that the Fire Marshall had issued reports about the dangers of these bulbs.

Upon doing some Internet research, it seems that bulbs made by ??oGlobe??? in China seem to have the lions share of problems. Lots of fires have been blamed on misuse of CFL bulbs, like using them in recessed lighting, pot lights, dimmers or in track lighting. Mine was installed in a normal light socket.

I bought these at Wal-Mart. I will be removing all the Globe bulbs from my house. CFL bulbs are a great energy saver but make sure you buy a name brand like Sylvania , Phillips or GE and not the ones from China .

But if you want to be safe and protect your family from toxic mercury in CFL bulbs, use LED bulbs to save energy or Incandescent bulbs until you switch to LEDs.

Almost exactly the same as it appears on Snopes' website. Hence this is one of those emails that gets passed around.

The email specifically refers to Globe branded bulbs, and Snopes says there's no reports anywhere of fires with Globe branded bulbs. None. It does refer to a recall issued in October 2010 for a different brand of Chinese CFL bulbs, that's related to less than 10 incidents of fire in CFL bulbs. 10 incidents out of how many CFL bulbs in the world? This sounds like an excellent track record.

The Snopes article also says it's quite normal for CFL bulbs to emit some smoke as they burn out. They're designed to do this. It's normal. etc. It wouldn't be normal for actual flames to be emitted. Of course.

At the top I pondered whether there's a disinformation campaign. I don't have any knowledge, it's largely a brain fart, with some reasoning behind it:-

There are a couple industries which stand to lose out if CFL's become the norm. a) incandescant bulb makers, and b) electricity companies

Writing like the above is geared to raise doubt within the reader's mind ... "hmm, maybe __fill in the blank__ is bad" ...

It's interesting how it names specific brands, saying that this one brand is cheap Chinese crap and instead we should use those other brands, name brands, because name brands are safer?

The last paragraph reads like a delaying tactic...

The fact is that incumbent industries want to continue business as usual. The electricity generator companies want to continue increasing the amount of electricity they sell. As a business they're expected by their shareholders to continue growing the company. Hence anything which threatens to decrease the amount of electricity being used is dangerous.

The electricity companies therefore have a motive to fight against anything that improves efficiency, because efficiency decreases the electricity being sold.

It's known that modern marketing techniques are very closely tied to mass psychology manipulation. And that there are subtle forms of marketing such as having people pose on the street as being excited about some new piece of technology, but instead it's marketing agents planting ideas in the population. It seems possible that emails like the ones above could be manipulated fakery planted by the same sort of marketing efforts.

In any case it's time for me to put down the keyboard, shower, shave, hop on my electric bicycle, and ride to work (where I'll pick up another keyboard). Why an electric bicycle? Because it's hugely more efficient than any other transportation method I've found.


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