GOP Relights Effort to Extinguish Billions in Consumer Savings — as NBC Blows the Light Bulb Standards Story Entirely

By Daniel J. Weiss with Joe Romm

Like some horrible Freddy Krueger film, blocking the new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs is a bad idea that won’t die. The House of Representatives failed to pass it with the needed two-thirds vote on July 12, but it has arisen again to be offered as an amendment to the House FY 2012 Energy and Water appropriations bill, H.R. 2345. Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) plans to offer an amendment to this spending bill that would prevent the Department of Energy from spending funds to enforce the standards, though they would remain in place. The House vote is expected on Friday July 15th.

One of the arguments used by those against creation of efficiency standards for light bulbs is that significantly more efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs contain trace levels of mercury. This argument has two flaws.

First, the law doesn’t actually ban incandescents, as a leading manufacturer explained to Climate Progress (see “Republicans Set To Repeal Light Bulb Efficiency Standard That Would Save Consumers $12 Billion A Year”). You’ll still be able to buy them, they’ll just be much more efficienct — notwithstanding the utterly false claims of right-wing opponents of the bill, which were repeated unchallenged by NBC evening news in a story one might expect to see on Fox News:

Second, and again contrary to the error-riddled NBC story — and the demagoguing by Ted Poe (R-TX) that NBC replays without correction — the mercury in the bulbs isn’t particularly dangerous. Even after more than 8 hours of exposure to a broken bulb, mercury levels are at most equal to eating a 6 oz can of tuna. And that was a worst-case scenario where “every effort was made to force the mercury into the air” and the broken bulb “was disposed of in a trash can, in the room” and “entrances to the room were shut, and heating vents and windows sealed, leaving little chance for the mercury to disperse.” More realistically, the “median of 45 breakage scenarios” compiled by Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection was “exposure to mercury … equivalent to about 1/50th of an ounce — a single nibble — of Albacore tuna!”

The Natural Resources Defense Council notes that mercury in CFLs is small compared to other common products

The amount of mercury contained in a CFL is very small — about 3 milligrams, roughly the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen — and is sealed within glass tubing. Reduction goals set by the lighting industry have driven a steady decrease in the amount of mercury in CFLs.

By comparison:

  • The watch battery on your wrist has about five times that amount.
  • Old-style thermometers have nearly 100 to 200 times that amount.
  • There can be approximately 200 times that amount in freezer light switches.
  • Nearly 500 times that amount is in the thermostats on the walls of your home.

In addition, CFLs use the same technology as do the linear fluorescent tubes we have been using in our schools, offices, and hospitals for decades, which by comparison can each contain up to 100 mg of mercury.

NRDC notes that “if a bulb does break, use common sense cleanup procedures — keep kids away, open a window, clean up the pieces and place them in a zip lock bag for recycling (many big box retailers and local hardware stores have CFL (recycling receptacles).”


During the debate on the BULB Act, H.R. 2014, to eliminate light bulb efficiency standards, several representatives raised concerns about mercury in CFLs. For instance, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) ominously warned

“These new light bulbs, these CFL light bulbs, are dangerous to our health. Dr. Burgess has already pointed out they contain mercury. I thought for years we were trying to get rid of the mercury in our environment, but it is in these light bulbs.”

Representatives Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Michael Burgess (R-TX), and Randy Hultgren (R-IL) also raised concerns about mercury. Yet they all voted to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from setting safeguards for mercury and other toxic pollutants from cement plants — the third largest source of mercury pollution.

Representatives Blackburn, and Burgess also voted for the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation Act, H.R. 2401. This bill would delay EPA’s reductions of mercury, lead, acid gases, and other air toxic reductions from coal fired power plants. These are the largest domestic source of mercury in the United States.

In other words, these representatives opposed significant reductions in mercury pollution from large sources, but oppose efficient light bulb standards due to trace amounts in some bulbs that meet the standards because of opposition from big oil funded organizations including Americans for Prosperity.


The BULB bill failed because it was voted on under a procedure where a two-thirds vote was required for passage. The Burgess amendment to block enforcement of efficiency standards will only require a majority of representatives. This anti-innovation, anti-household savings, anti-jobs amendment could pass, making it an issue when the Senate considers the Energy and Water FY 2012 spending bill. The House will continue its Nightmare on Dirty Street efforts to block common sense improvement in light bulb efficiency standards.

— Dan Weiss with Joe Romm

Below are earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:

John Tucker

I like that you use tuna as the mercury exposure standard joe. At some point it may actually click. Sheezzzz

July 14 at 7:05pmTimothy Hughbanks

Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if the organomercury compounds you get from tuna aren’t a lot worse than from the elemental mercury in the vapor over a compact fluorescent light bulb.

July 15 at 10:27am

Joshua Probert

Don’t pretend the thermostat won’t just kick the heat up to match the energy lost in an “efficient bulb.”

July 15 at 1:43amAnnie Neemuss

I wondered about this. If a house normally has the equivalent of 5 x 100w bulbs going during the hours of darkness, that’s say 400w of “waste” heat being added to it.


In climates where you have to keep your air conditioning going, there’s a good case for saying you just gain 400w (maybe more). If you’re in a colder climate, it’s all nowhere near so certain.

Changes like this are rarely simple and often have unintended consequences (like increasing your heating bill in compensation)

July 15 at 3:29am

Mike twotwo

Especially during the current heat wave, Texans can rely on incandescent bulbs for the extra heat they need.

July 15 at 8:15am

Joan Savage

The library wasn’t constructed until later. Sorry I missed the edit.

July 15 at 12:09pm

Joan Savage

What’s puzzling to me is that among the light bulb manufacturing facilities in the US, there is a Philips plant in Paris, Texas, which appears to make fluorescent bulbs. It’s an in-state facility, so why don’t Barton and Burgess of Texas back them up?

There aren’t a lot of incandescent light bulb manufacturers left in the US. “American-Made” is a company in SC that manufactures only incandescent bulbs. GE closed its Virginia facility for incandescent bulbs. Osram Philips has shifted to LEDs that fit into a standard socket, an ingenious solution. So who is making incandescent bulbs in the US? more particularly, Texas? Many incandescent bulbs are imported, so that makes the ‘good ole’ light bulb something of an anomaly. Is some importer getting some favoritism on this or what? If the DOE isn’t going to get funding to regulate manufacturing, that could be moot if the manufacturers are overseas. More and more puzzling. Missing something….

July 14 at 10:03pm

Mike twotwo

A 60 watt bulb, costing 50 cents, will use 60 kilowatt hours during its brief 1000 hour life, worth 6 dollars (at 10 cent/kwh). It is not the bulb they are fighting for, they fight to keep revenue and demand for dirty electricity up. Yeah and the fool Tea Partiers think this is a constitutional issue. (har har)

July 15 at 8:12am

Joan Savage

Mike twotwo. Could well be! And I might have found some evidence.Actually earlier I was having fun with ‘legitimate’ reasons that politicians maneuver for constituents, and not finding obvious ones.However, Texas has had a WHOPPING excess of electricity production capacity relative to demand, which supports your contention and my search for a local impetus to national legislation.http://www.window.state.tx​.us/specialrpt/energy/uses​/electricity.php

And the Tea Partiers who are being played for their anti-regulation sentiments, while having their pockets filched, deserve a magnificent and sympathetic political cartoon.

July 15 at 10:55am

Mike twotwo

Strong irony in the GOP who on the one hand claimi to seek more freedom (less regulation) for its people, and on the other, fighting for higher electric bills for them. Higher gas bills (freedom CAFE regulation) Higher medical bills (freedom from medical reform). Many more examples. The GOP treats its constituents like idiots, fed on Fox, and fit only to vote and buy.

July 15 at 11:40am

Celia Schorr

Yes, exactly. While at the same time continuing their efforts to depress voter turnout. Examples: their ludicrous propaganda about voter fraud; pushing to require picture IDs at polls; attacking ACORN, etc, etc… GOP primary voters are now a tiny fraction of the actual electorate, with outsized power to set the national agenda. The increasing size of independents is due to all the sane Republicans leaving the party. The only thing they can is try to scare “traditionally Democratic” populations out of going to the polls. I think the GOP picked up on the potentially dangerous (to them) populism in some of the Tea Party (referring not to the racist, completely crazy elements, but to some of the smaller independent TP groups) and decided they’d better co-opt it immediately and direct that anger against gov’t. before it turned against corporations.

July 16 at 3:32pm

Peter Dublin

Consumers as a whole hardly save MONEY — regardless of energy savings.1. Initial bulb cost 2. Utilities compensated for reduced sales:So, not just in having to pay more for the light bulbs as an initial cost.(or being forced to pay for them, via taxpayer CFL programs).- but also because electricity companies are being taxpayer subsidised.or allowed to raise Bill rates to compensate for any reduced.electricity use, as already seen both federally and in California, Ohio etc,and before them in the UK and other European countries.( as referenced​niacfl ).

July 15 at 5:07pm


Compact fluorescent light bulbs will be replaced with LEDs anyway.

Fluorescent lamps and LED to replace traditional incandescent light bulbs.http://www.abcactionnews.c​om/dpp/money/consumer/fluo​rescent-lamps-and-led-to-r​eplace-traditional-incande​scent-light-bulbsJuly 14 at 6:19pm


The ABC article sucks too. Mainstream media fail alert.

July 14 at 6:21pm

Peter Dublin

Bulb Ban Wrong: 1. Only c. 2% grid electricity saved, DOE etc data: — with much more relevant alternatives.2. No large power plant saved, even with supposed energy savings:

July 15 at 5:04pmColorado Bob

Facebook is going harvest all our organs. Why are we helping them?

July 15 at 12:51amColorado Bob

“ Facebook is going harvest all our organs” ….. goes right to their bottom line, They’re matching livers as I type.

PS …. I don’t believe a word of this, but I’m right.

July 15 at 12:57am