Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« Today in Line Out | sk8er h8ers »

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Dear Science

posted by on August 2 at 16:20 PM

This week in Dear Science, The Stranger’s science column, Science answers the age-old question:

Are fluorescent lightbulbs really better for the earth? Because they fucking suck.

Science agrees (“Right now, Science looks near death thanks to some lowest-bid buzzing tubes overhead”) and explains how traditional light bulbs work (lots of energy used in creating relatively little light) and goes on to say:

Fluorescent bulbs cheat, heating up a coil of wire only enough to start throwing off electrons, which in turn convert a low-pressure mercury vapor into plasma. The heavy-metal vapor throws off a bunch of ultraviolet light—excellent for tanning or destroying DNA, but not so great for looking. The white powder on the inside of the bulb converts the emitted ultraviolet light into visible light by fluorescence—hence the name. This convoluted pathway uses about a quarter of energy to make the same intensity light as a traditional bulb and also lasts longer than a regular bulb. Great! Fluorescents are a clear environmental winner, right?

Not so fast.

The “mercury vapor” that fluorescent bulbs require is quite toxic. While new compact fluorescent bulbs are voluntarily limited to five milligrams of mercury each, as little as a tenth of a milligram per square yard will make you seriously ill. Shaking hands, drooling, irritability, memory loss, depression, weakness—sounds like fun. And that’s what happens to adults; kids can be permanently injured by mercury exposure. If you break one of these bulbs in your house—and think of all the times a bulb breaks—the current advice is to open a window and run…

The verdict? It might surprise you. It has something to do with where in the country you live.

By the way, Science is happy to answer your burning questions—whether glass is really a liquid, why pears taste so good, why some men dribble and others shoot, whatever. Send queries here.

RSS icon Comments


Yeah, that mercury part is a drag, especially since those compact fluorescents are being pumped as the green way to a brighter future. Most people I ask don't know they contain mercury and need to be disposed of like the toxic waste they are. And the manufacturers haven't done a bang-up job of offering obvious dead-bulb collection points everywhere they're sold. (Also, they seem very sensitive to power fluctuations, but that's another topic.)

Posted by MvB | August 2, 2007 4:33 PM

Thanks.. Reminds me of being a kid and breaking tons of them. Because of teh cool sounds and I didn't think much bout what I might have been breathing in.

Knowing this makes me feel only slightly less stupid than the guys I read about a few years ago who filled them with gasoline and lit them up so they could have a real lightsaber fight.

Posted by Clint | August 2, 2007 4:41 PM

A compact flourescent bulb almost started a fire in my kitchen. A shorting switch caused the electronic components in the base of the bulb to burn, sending out a lovely plume of electrical smoke. Regular bulbs don't have any electronic components, just a glass bulb, an aluminum cup, and a few inches of wire. The short only made them burn out a little faster.

Posted by Fnarf | August 2, 2007 4:42 PM

Frizzelle would want to know why some men dribble.

Posted by Shooter | August 2, 2007 4:54 PM

Master of the in-paper plug =D

Posted by fun shaped | August 2, 2007 5:10 PM

#5: Actually, Dear Science is available online only.

Posted by Ari Spool | August 2, 2007 5:11 PM


Hadn't finished the last few pages of print yet, thought it might be back there.

My retarded bad.

Posted by fun shaped | August 2, 2007 5:38 PM

If the mercury doesn't kill you, then the 60 Hz flashing may drive you crazy. AC power in North America is 60 Hz, and flourescent bulbs flicker at that rate (and sometimes slower if the bulb or ballast are malfunctioning). Incadescent bulbs, which emit light from a heated filament, don't have that problem (heating/cooling of that filament is much slower than 60Hz, so you don't see a flicker). That's why so many people get headaches when they're in a room full of flourescents.

It also isn't possible to dim a flourescent bulb (so much for setting a mood).

But we still want to save electricity, right? LED's are the way!

Posted by Mahtli69 | August 2, 2007 5:41 PM

"A shorting switch caused the electronic components in the base of the bulb to burn."

can I ask of what use this anecdote is? halogen lights, under normal use, become hot enough to become a fire hazard. Incandescents can be a hazard with faulty wiring. blaming shitty electrical work on a fluorescent bulb isn't really damning evidence.

I guess the upshot is that if fluorescents don't give you a headache (a valid concern) and you can figure out how to throw them out (
go with fluorescent. most of the materials can be recycled or at least safely junked, and they help cut down on lighting energy use, what nearly 20% of US energy production goes into.

Posted by dbell | August 2, 2007 7:25 PM

It's stupid to talk about where you got your power, because if the hydroelectric plants produce excess power, they'll sell it to poor bastards who can only make power by burning prehistoric fossils and spewing mercury about, who will then have to do so less.

So saving power anywhere saves power everywhere, at least on the American grid.

Posted by john | August 2, 2007 8:51 PM

Hmmm... who should I listen to?

Al Gore says buy the new energy saving bulbs. Should I trust him? Has he ever been right about anything before? What is Al Gore's track record on taking on a problem and figuring out what to do about it?

On the other hand, should I believe, Jonathan, uh, Golem? Galoom? Jason (or Jonathan) is a Stranger like writer or something right? And everyone says he's just an all around great guy with loads of talent and lots and lots of potential.

Gosh. I don't know. Help me out here. Who to believe?

Posted by elenchos | August 2, 2007 9:20 PM

Even more worrisome regarding compact fluorescent bulbs is that the bulk of them are made in China. Before that lightbulb even starts saving electricity on this continent, it has been manufactured in a factory powered by coal and shipped across an ocean.

It's not "saving" electricity. It's outsourcing it. And you're outsourcing it to a country that needs a new coal fired generator every week just to keep up with demand.

I'll stick with inefficient burning tungsten for now, thanks.

Posted by Thomas | August 3, 2007 4:31 AM

what we need is to genetically engineer plants that emit light. Dear science, is this a possibility?

Posted by ooo! ooo! | August 3, 2007 7:21 AM

I always roll my eyes when people gush about how much energy they save with fluorescent. Yes, incandescent uses about 5% of the energy for light, and 95% of the energy for heat. In the summer, that heat is wasted. But the rest of the year, when you're heating your house, the heat is not wasted. It's helping to heat your house, so your furnace runs less. So the amount you're spending on energy for incandescent is equal to the amount you're saving by running your furnace less, in the months that you're heating your house. Is that small difference worth the risks of mercury and annoying light?

Posted by SeattleBrad | August 3, 2007 8:16 AM

I visited that "How to Throw Things Away" link (@9) and found this:

"Residents are encouraged to recycle these lights through a household hazardous waste facility."

There are two points: a) household products shouldn't require you to go online to figure out to dispose of them properly, and b) who the fuck is going to drive a fluorescent bulb to a household hazardous waste facility?

Posted by MvB | August 3, 2007 9:23 AM

Can't fluorescent bulbs be tinted with some other color of powder to make the light they emit less grotesque?

Posted by Catman | August 3, 2007 10:56 AM

@8: Actually, the flicker frequency of a properly operating fluorescent bulb is 120 Hz. The bulb lights on both the positive and negative half-cycles. If the ballast is dying it may flicker erratically at lower frequencies, though.

Eventually LED bulbs will offer better light quality without the hazardous waste problem. Right now they're too expensive, though.

Posted by Orv | August 3, 2007 1:58 PM

Where to begin....

Flicker - older style fluorescent lamps coupled with magnetic ballasts did indeed flicker.

Modern fluorescent lamps coupled with electronic ballasts - available for more than 20 years and now dominant - operate at 20,000-40,000 hz - well beyond either human perception or what we call phosphor decay - meaning that there is no flicker.

Color - again, older style fluorescent lamps made eveyone look like zombies. We use an indicator noted CRI - color rendering index to determine how well a particular lamp renders colors. Older style fluorescent lamps had a CRI in the 60s. Modern lamps have typical CRI ranges in the 80s to 90s - No more zombies.

Mercury - yes, there is a tiny amount of mercury in each lamp. Unfortunately, this is required to make the lamps work - sometimes physics is a bitch.

The reality is that the amount of mercury contained within each lamp is vanishingly small compared to the amount of additional atmospheric mercury released by power plants required to pump out enough energy to power incandescent lamps. While our power locally is dominated by hydro, that is not the case nationwide. Energy that is saved here can be used to minimize mercury pollution elsewhere as well.

Lamp recycling - yes, it's best to recycle fluorescent lamps. It would be great if the DIY stors had recycling bins available, and I'm reasonably sure that this is coming. In the meantime, there are several recycling sites in the metro seattle area.

To those whining about having to recycle I would ask - what do you do with waste oil, or paint, or pesticides, or any of the other myriad household toxics? Flush em and hope for the best?

Posted by lumens | August 4, 2007 12:05 PM

Whoops - forgot LEDs.

Currently, commercially available LED technology is roughly as efficient as halogen incandescent; i.e. 20-30 lumens/watt. (Think of lumens as pounds of light) Currently, linear fluorescent offers 80-100 lumens / watt. Regular incandescent (screw in "A" lamp) is ~10 lumens / watt.

LEDs are great for limited applications currently, especially for colored light, but it will be a good while I suspect before they are truly ready for prime time.

To put things in some perspective, I've been hearing about new breakthroughs that'll deliver commercially available 100 lumen per watt leds for almost a decade now...

Posted by lumens | August 4, 2007 12:10 PM

qzwm dpvmcqsx cnrshb kcwlspg ejna tbzvasn wbngmo

Posted by bsrutlic jvbqmseng | August 8, 2007 1:31 PM

qzwm dpvmcqsx cnrshb kcwlspg ejna tbzvasn wbngmo

Posted by bsrutlic jvbqmseng | August 8, 2007 1:33 PM

sdthyqxw ntreip mkygza yctia bdnctrmhj fqugha yecpz

Posted by pltysw juzpgyle | August 8, 2007 1:34 PM

sdthyqxw ntreip mkygza yctia bdnctrmhj fqugha yecpz

Posted by pltysw juzpgyle | August 8, 2007 1:34 PM

Comments Closed

In order to combat spam, we are no longer accepting comments on this post (or any post more than 14 days old).