Sierra Club to give away 400 compact fluorescent bulbs

Saturday, January 17, 2009 | 4:06 p.m. CST; updated 10:35 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 17, 2009

Facts, facts, facts

Part I: Rating the Bulbs

The Environmental Working Group analyzed thousands of compact fluorescent bulbs and rated them for mercury content and efficiency. The group's 2009 Green Lighting Guide can be found at Here are the bulbs they recommended:


  • Earthmate Mini-Size Bulbs: 1 mg of mercury; 10,000-hour lifespan
  • Litetronics Neolite: 1 mg of mercury; 10,000-hour lifespan
  • Sylvania Micro-Mini: less than 1.5 mg of mercury; 12,000-hour lifespan
  • Sylvania DURA-ONE: less than 1.8 mg of mercury; 15,000-hour lifespan
  • Feit Ecobulb: less than 2.5 mg of mercury; 8,000- to 10,000-hour lifespan
  • MaxLite: 1.2 to 2.5 mg of mercury; 10,000-hour lifespan
  • Philips with Alto: 1.23 to 2.7 mg of mercury; 8,000 to 10,000-hour lifespan

For more information on each bulb and where to purchase them as well as a list of bulbs that do not meet the newest Energy Star standards, visit

Part II: Bulb giveaway

The Sierra Club's Water Sentinels will be giving away 400 compact fluorescent bulbs sold to them at cost by Lowe's as part of the national day of service called for by President-elect Barack Obama. Bulbs will be distributed in a first-come, first-served manner; each family member present will be given one bulb.

When: 4 to 7 p.m. Monday

Where: J. W. “Blind” Boone Community Center at 301 N. Providence Road in Columbia

Part III: If the bulb breaks

If a compact fluorescent lightbulb breaks, the Environmental Working Group urges consumers to follow these critical steps:

  • Close doors and open windows to allow volatile mercury vapors to vent outdoors. Stay away for 5 to 15 minutes.
  • Keep children and pregnant or nursing women away from the contaminated area.
  •  Scoop up bulb fragments and use tape to collect tiny particles. Seal the waste in a glass jar with screw-top lid.

From April through November, Columbia residents can take advantage of the public works department's semimonthly household hazardous waste collection. For more information, visit and click on "Household Hazardous Waste Facility" or call 874-6291.



COLUMBIA — On Monday, Columbia residents will receive delicate toxin-filled electronic devices whose performance depends both on quality components and careful handling: They're getting compact fluorescent light bulbs.

The Sierra Club will distribute 400 bulbs as part of the national day of service called for by President-elect Barack Obama. Residents looking to pick up bulbs on Monday or planning to upgrade their lighting in the future should be aware that all compact fluorescents aren't created equal.

According to a new analysis by the Environmental Working Group, many compact fluorescent bulbs now on the market — including those to be distributed by the Sierra Club — have mercury levels conforming with standards the group deems "virtually obsolete."

Scott Dye, the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels director who organized the giveaway with the help of the Columbia Housing Authority, said that though the bulbs being distributed on Monday are not on the cutting edge of technology, "they're far, far better than what folks are using if they're using standard incandescents" and will save approximately $38 over the life of the bulb.

Lowe's sold the bulbs to the Sierra Club at cost. Dye said the Sierra Club would prefer to give away cutting-edge compact fluorescents, "but being a not-for-profit, we can only do as much as we can do." Even older bulbs will have a positive impact, Dye said.

Like all fluorescent lights, compact fluorescents produce light by running electricity through mercury vapor; some bulbs contain more of the neurotoxin than others. If the bulbs break, the mercury can contaminate the surrounding environment. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., environmental advocacy organization, recommends that consumers choose bulbs with a low mercury content and place them in low-traffic areas.

Therese Folsom of the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels program said the General Electric bulbs they will distribute Monday are rated to work for 8,000 hours and produce as much light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb. GE bulbs of that type typically contain between 4 and 5 milligrams of mercury.

Folsom said the club will distribute additional information on mercury in compact fluorescents as well as Columbia's Guide to the Safe Handling and Disposal of Household Hazardous Waste.

Although their mercury content necessitates extra precautions, compact fluorescent lights are all more efficient than their incandescent counterparts. The energy efficiency of a bulb is measured in units of light — lumens — produced for every watt of power used. A 60-watt incandescent bulb will produce around 15 lumens per watt, while a typical compact fluorescent will produce between 55 and 75 lumens per watt, according to the Web site of Energy Federation Inc., bulb sellers and compact fluorescent boosters.

According to a fact sheet released by the government's Energy Star program in June, the mercury content in a compact fluorescent is more than offset by the reduction in mercury emitted by coal-fired power plants caused by the bulb's lower energy consumption. Over its lifetime, the report says, a compact fluorescent, even if broken, will cause the release of less mercury into the environment than an equivalent number of incandescent bulbs.

All bulbs distributed by the Columbia Water and Light Department meet federal Energy Star standards, spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz said. The latest requirements for Energy Star certification, which take effect on July 1, cap mercury content at 5 or 6 milligrams, require a minimum of 50 to 65 lumens per watt for the most common compact fluorescents — depending on wattage — and set a minimum life span of 6,000 hours.

In their 2009 Shopper's Guide to Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs available at, the Environmental Working Group took on the Energy Star certification, calling a 5-milligram mercury limit "pointless." Bulbs far exceeding those standards, with as little as 1 milligram of mercury and a life span of more than 15,000 hours, are now available. The group advocated a tightening of Energy Star standards, including a new 2.5-milligram mercury cap.

Unless the coiled tube breaks, mercury will not leak from a compact fluorescent bulb. Many compact fluorescents fail due to the bulb's electronics; no mercury escapes in such cases. The base of a typical compact fluorescent bulb contains a circuit board packed with transistors, capacitors and other electronic components; the quality of this electronic assembly varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. David Mars of Columbia Water and Light said a bulb with inferior electronics will have a shorter life span and be more vulnerable to premature failure.

Accustomed to the simplicity and convenience of less-efficient incandescent bulbs, many Columbians don't understand the effort required to get the most out of a compact fluorescent, Mars said.

A bulb's electronics can be damaged by excessive heat, so Mars recommends that the bulbs be placed in well-ventilated areas and that consumers take care to follow manufacturers' recommendations regarding installation and location. For example, some compact fluorescents are not designed to sit base-up, where heat from the fluorescent tube can rise and damage electronics.

Mars and other experts say that though compact fluorescents are promising, consumers need to better understand the bulbs before they can reach their full potential.

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Douglas Fisher January 18, 2009 | 11:17 a.m.

A good explanation of the advantages and relative risks of compact fluorescents. My family uses them and they have made a significant difference in electrical usage. The one thing missing from your article is how to responsibly dispose of the burnt out bulbs after their very long life.

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