Fiat Lux – Let There Be Light

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday June 19 2011

Before remote controls were invented, couch potatoes got a little exercise getting up to change channels. When I watched TV, I found the remote useful to switch off the ads without delay. I don’t want the evil bastards getting in my head. ‘Neuromarketing’ has refined the crude subliminal techniques of 60s advertising. Neuroscientists and psychiatrists are searching for the buy-button in the brain. This involves putting subjects into brain-scanning machinery and pitching concepts and images at them to see which ones make the lights flash.

Talking about flashing lights… I can avoid ads by not having a TV or radio, there is no escape when I go shopping. There is always a radio on in Cargill’s supermarket with irritating voices  forcing something useless on me. I was particularly cranky recently when some smug know-it-all was lecturing me about the virtues of CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) energy-saving light bulbs. He patiently explained that an 11W energy saver is equivalent to 60W of the old-fashioned kind.

I never found it easy to love those new-fangled bulbs. The old-fashioned incandescent bulbs had a pleasing shape, like ripe fruit. Energy-savers are all complicated in shape with lots of nooks and crannies for insects to die in. They are pretty damned expensive too, which makes one endure the rigmarole of waiting for the shop assistant to fill in the warranty slips.

When CFLs were first introduced in Sri Lanka, CEB (Ceylon Electricity Board) launched a scheme to popularise them as a means of saving on power, and offered four bulbs per consumer, the cost of which was recovered in twelve instalments added onto the monthly electricity bill. The British Council helped found CFL Sri Lanka in May 2010 with the aim of “encouraging and empowering the people of Sri Lanka about the use of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) that save money and the environment”. Post-colonial imperialsm?

Persuasion, encouragement, empowerment – all fine ideas.

All this ugliness and expense is worth it, no? The little buggers are good for the planet, after all. The EU has banned the old bulbs in order to make it easier for us to be virtuous and use the unlovely new-fangleds. Regulation 244/2009 of the European Commission enforces the gradual phase-out of incandescent light bulbs from September 2009. As of September 2012, only energy efficient lighting sources will be allowed for sale in Europe. Rejoice, rejoice we have no choice! By 2020, it seems the measures will save enough energy to power 11 million households every year. This will reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 15 million tons each year.

Champions of the new bulbs claim that conventional incandescent light bulbs convert only around 5-10% of the energy they use into light; the rest is given off as heat. The propaganda says they are far more wasteful than newer devices.

The EU estimates that a household can save at least €50 on electricity bills every year by switching to energy-saving bulbs. Funny thing though, experience does not seem to back this up. The little buggers don’t seem to last very long and it’s a hassle finding the warranty and the empty box and going back to the shop to complain. In one test by the U.S. Department of Energy, one quarter of tested CFLs no longer met their rated output after 40% of their rated service life. I have hoarded my electricity bills going back many years and they seem to be going up not down. This is not because of increasing tariffs or the FU Charge (I used to think that was something obscene but perhaps it just means Futility Utility). There is no decrease in the number of units used after we went completely over to energy-savers.

Researchers at RWI (Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung) seem to be on my side. Manuel Frondel and Steffen Lohmann argue that the EC ban “is a harsh attack on consumers’ sovereignty on purchase decisions that is hardly warranted on environmental and welfare grounds”.

If they are so good for the environment why are these bulbs so dangerous for individuals? Even the UK Department of the Environment advises that if a low-energy bulb is accidentally smashed everyone should leave the room for 15 minutes because the bulb contains mercury in vapour form. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain, liver, kidneys and central nervous system.This is a problem in land-fills and waste incinerators because mercury leaks into the air and the water. Special handling instructions for breakage are currently not printed on the packaging of household CFL bulbs in many countries.


Hundreds of Chinese factory workers who manufacture CFLs for export have been poisoned. At a factory in Foshan, 68 out of 72 workers were so badly poisoned that they required hospitalization. In Jinzhou, 121 out of 123 employees were found to have excessive mercury levels, with one employee’s mercury level 150 times the accepted standard.


Unison, the garbage men’s trade union in the UK, say their members should refuse to accept them. Even if bulbs are unbroken they should be specially handled by a recycling unit because of their toxic waste.

This fact is unknown to 80% of UK consumers. The Department of Environment’s advice to place a bulb in a sealed plastic bag does not meet with the approval of the State of Maine, Dept of Environmental Protection who report that vapours well above safe levels continued to leach from the bags. The Maine DEP study also confirmed that, despite following best-practice cleanup guidelines on broken CFLs, researchers were unable to remove mercury from carpet, and agitation of the carpet — such as by young children playing — created localized high concentrations air close to the carpet, even weeks after the initial breakage. The bulbs have been known to exacerbate skin rashes, trigger migraines and seizures in epileptics. A study conducted by Peter Braun at Berlin’s Germany’s Alab Laboratory found these light bulbs contain carcinogens including Phenol, Naphthalene and Styrene. Abraham Haim, a professor of biology at Haifa University found that the light from the bulbs increased the likelihood of breast cancer by disrupting the body’s production of melatonin.

There have been reports of the bulbs making TVs change channel without use of the remote.


So this is the free market at work. Advertising tries to convince us that our virtue will be enhanced by saving the planet and these bulbs will save us money even though we don’t notice it. Frondel and Lohmann at RWI are on to this. “If the saving potential of energy-saving light bulbs was really as significant as it is presumed by the European Commission, it has to be asked why the overwhelming majority of European consumers has not yet massively installed energy-saving light bulbs in their homes on a voluntary basis. This argument is all the more relevant for industrial consumers, for which one can safely expect that competition may foster the cost saving behaviour of firms and companies”.

The market having failed to persuade us, coercion is used.


Perhaps there is a niche opportunity here for Sri Lankan entrepreneurs. The last Morris Minor came off the assembly line in 1971. Enthusiasts all over the world are still able to run the classic car thanks to the efforts of the Durable Car Company in Galle, which makes Morris spare parts by hand.


Some enterprising Sri Lanka company should get into gear to build up stocks of incandescent bulbs.