CFL bulbs efficient, but are they safe?

By Gery L. Deer

January 23, 2014

The incandescent light bulb was developed in 1876 by Thomas Edison, founder of General Electric. But as more energy efficient technology is introduced, even Edison’s greatest achievement has finally been snuffed out. On Sept. 24, 2013, it was announced that the last of the old-style incandescent light bulbs had rolled off the GE assembly line to be replaced entirely by compact fluorescents, or “CFLs.”

The twisted-tube bulbs use low-energy compact fluorescent technology, but there’s nothing new about them except the size.

Fluorescent lighting has been around since the 1880s, but wasn’t developed for widespread use until the 1930s. Less expensive to operate than their incandescent counterparts, most of the bulbs last longer and are safe for the consumer. But has the push for energy-efficient or, “green” technology come too fast with more of a regard for the environment than human safety?

At this point it’s important to note that, while it may be unusual for a reporter to write in the first person, in this case, I believe it’s appropriate to give a personal account of the subject.

Recently I went into my kitchen and switched on the light, as I did countless times throughout the week. I left the room for a moment and when I returned it was dark, the light having been replaced with the smell of burned ceramic and melted plastic. Upon investigation I discovered the CFL bulb in the overhead light had quite literally burned out.

Just before it went dark, the 20-Watt, General Electric CFL bulb I had installed a few months earlier had gone so hot that it severely discolored the ceramic base and flamed through it, causing it to melt and crack at the bottom of the glass tubing. The damage is evident in the accompanying photograph. The discovery of such a potential fire hazard was new to me, but apparently the problem is well-documented and manufacturers have been aware of it since the product’s release.

In a Snopes.com article John Drengenberg, consumer affairs manager at Underwriters Laboratories (UL), said about how CFLs expire, “People expect to see the bright flash and to hear the popping like a traditional incandescent bulb, but the burn out of a CFL is different. The light dims over time and might produce a more dramatic pop, emit a distinct odor, and maybe even release some smoke.”

The same article also quotes the National Geographic Green Guide which states of CFLs: “Bulbs burn out when the ballast overheats and an electronic component, the Voltage Dependent Resistor (VDR), opens up like a fuse in your home’s fuse box, shutting off the circuit and generating heat and possibly a small amount of smoke. This might sound dangerous, but the VDR is a cut-off switch that prevents any hazards. The melted plastic you’re seeing where the glass coil connects to the ballast is simply a sign that the heat is escaping as intended in the design of the bulb.”

As it turned out, I discovered that there are countless articles, videos and online debates regarding the safety of CLF lighting. Tyler Homan, project and service department manager with McKeever-Neecamp Electric, Inc. in Dayton, Ohio, said this happens all the time. “It’s the electronic ballast inside of (the bulbs) that is burning up. Also if the glass gets weak it will fizzle out all of the gas inside it and then burn up.” There is also a small amount of mercury in the bulbs which can escape when this happens.

As an engineering technician at a major appliance manufacturer in the early 1990’s, I worked under U.L. guidelines when testing ovens, ranges and cook-tops. Nothing that literally let flame out of its casing would ever have been approved for mass consumption in those days. From a consumer standpoint, how does U.L. justify the approval of such a device that clearly presents a fire safety hazard under “normal use” conditions? That question is still as yet, unanswered.

Tips for preventing CFL fire hazards:

1. Check CFL bulbs regularly for a brown or yellowish discoloration at the base.

2. Avoid using the bulbs in light fixtures with enclosed globes or shades.

3. Avoid using the bulbs near high-temperature areas like over a stove or oven.