Burning down the house! Are CFL lightbulbs environmental Trojan Horses?

Fire and melting plastic are normal with CFL burnout...
MILLINOCKET, Maine, March 24, 2014 – The manufacturer’s rep says, “When these things start to go, you’ll have a burning electrical smell, you’ll see smoke, the plastic housing will start to melt and, oh, yeah… you may have a blow-torch-like flame shooting from the base. How many of these babies do ya want?”

If you were buying fireworks, you might get a few, they sound pretty exciting, but we are talking about light bulbs, those twisty CFLs or Compact Fluorescent Lights.

LED bulbs vs. CFL
LED bulbs vs. CFL

Can you believe that professionals are telling us these are normal occurrences?

According to Stuart Hickox of One Change/Project Porchlight, an organization giving out free CFL bulbs in Canada:

“Bulbs burn out when the ballast overheats and an electronic component, the Voltage Dependent Resister (VDR), opens up, 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.

“So, the burnt smell coming from your CFL bulb when it dies is normal, as is the melting and overheating.”

From the Underwriter’s Laboratories website:

“With CFLs, everything consumers know about a bulb burning out changes.”

John Drengenberg, consumer affairs manager, Underwriters Laboratories (UL):

“…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 plastic at the base of a CFL can turn black, but … this is also normal in most cases, as safety standards require the use of special flame retardant plastics in the base that do not burn or drop particles.

“Any popping sounds or smoke that a consumer might see when a CFL burns out means that the bulb’s end-of-life mechanism worked as it should have.”

Most people would consider these occurrences to be a hazard, and we haven’t even touched on the hazards of broken CFLs. A component of the gas inside a CFL is mercury, a heavy metal that is dangerous to ingest and is classified as a hazardous material.

And you can’t just throw them in the trash when they burn out. States require CFLs to be returned, unbroken to designated collection centers.

This makes alternative LED bulbs look pretty good, huh? LEDs are a bit pricey at the moment, but the prices will come down as they are incorporated into the market.

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