Politics & Policy

Stop the War on Edison’s Bulb!

Washington’s incandesophobia is generating unintended consequences.

Washington, D.C. — With its traffic circles and tree-lined squares, America’s capital sometimes resembles a magical, otherworldly place. Maybe that’s why so many who govern here think that they can wave their legislative wands and unleash beauty — free of costs and complications.

Of course, reality rarely cooperates.

Consider Washington’s still-unfolding ban on Thomas Alva Edison’s incandescent light bulb. What the Wizard of Menlo Park, N.J., required 10,000 experiments to perfect, Brooks Brothers socialist George W. Bush needed just one signature to pulverize.

If the law is left unchallenged, Jan. 1, 2012, will bring stricter standards that Congress designed in 2007 to electrocute Edison’s invention and dragoon Americans into using more energy-efficient alternatives. Next New Year’s Day, it will become a federal crime to sell traditional 100-watt bulbs. January 1, 2013, will spell curtains for the 75-watt models. One year later, 60-watt and 40-watt incandescent bulbs will be prohibited by federal law.

And Uncle Sam means business. A May 7, 2010, Energy Department document warmly titled “Guidance on the Imposition of Civil Penalties for Violations of EPCA Conservation Standards and Certification Obligations” details the penalties that await anyone who dares to sell Edison bulbs once they become contraband under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act:  

The Department will seek the maximum civil penalty against manufacturers and labelers that knowingly distribute products that violate the federal energy and water conservation standards – $200 per unit distributed in commerce. We believe the maximum penalty is appropriate and necessary to provide the greatest possible deterrence. Such violations directly undermine the EPCA regulatory regime, preventing consumers from achieving energy and cost savings intended by the program.

Westinghouse Lighting Corporation is very lucky that the Energy Department did not slap it with this penalty of $200 per verboten bulb. Last December 8, Westinghouse President Raymond Angelo signed an agreement to pay Energy a $50,000 fine for selling 29,000 fluorescent bulbs that violated federal standards. Westinghouse could have suffered a $5.8 million fine. Instead, it settled for 0.86 cents of each dollar of that potential punishment.

But this law is causing grief far beyond corporate headquarters. Courtesy of our federal masters, average Americans are enduring a parade of unforeseen consequences — all because “the experts” want to extinguish one of this nation’s greatest contributions to humanity.

‐ Those swirly bulbs that Washington hopes will replace incandescents are called compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). They brighten slowly, function poorly with dimmer knobs, and emit light that many find unappealing. Even worse, according to EnergyStar.gov, each CFL contains 4 milligrams of toxic mercury. Given the Environmental Protection Agency’s “maximum contaminant level” of 0.002 milligrams per liter, an average CFL contains enough mercury to pollute 528 gallons of water — more than sufficient to fill ten typical 50-gallon residential water heaters.

As the EPA warns, “High exposures to inorganic mercury may result in damage to the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system, and the kidneys.”

Breaking a CFL triggers a significant health hazard that requires a ten-step clean-up. Among other things, the EPA recommends “opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.” No problem . . . unless you occupy an apartment, hotel room, or office with sealed windows. Most modern skyscrapers lack operable windows. The same is true for many Capitol Hill offices.

“The irony should be lost on no one that many members of Congress who crafted this legislation lack the ability to vent the toxic vapors from these eco-friendly lights that they have foisted on us,” says Chicago real-estate developer Justin Berzon.

– “Shut off the central forced air heating/air conditioning system,” EPA advises. Again, what if you break a CFL in an office tower? Shall the entire building freeze or roast while this mini–Superfund site gets sanitized?

– “Continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the H&AC system shut off, as practical, for several hours,” EPA counsels. This might upset residents of Phoenix, where temperatures hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday, just before a crippling dust storm drove Phoenicians indoors. Likewise, opening one’s windows in Minneapolis might be unappealing in January, when highs average 22 degrees.

– “Compact fluorescent light bulbs are dangerous for our family, and dangerous twice over for our son Jonathan, age 11, who is severely autistic,” says Amy Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, with which I am a distinguished fellow. Ridenour adds:

Because of his disability, Jonathan doesn’t understand that he should be careful around light fixtures, so he breaks a bulb every few months. The EPA recommends a ten-step process for cleaning up a broken CFL bulb on carpeting, and two more steps each of the next few times that you vacuum, in order to get the mercury that the first 10 steps missed. But how can you be sure to get it all? If our autistic son broke three CFL bulbs a year in the family room over half a dozen years, even if we followed every recommended step a tedious, cumulative 180-plus times, would our family room ever be safe?

“Also,” Ridenour continues, “the last thing you do with severely autistic people is open windows. In the parlance, they tend to be ‘runners’ — as in, out the door or window and into traffic, or the woods, or the pool. We only would open a window about six inches and no more, so as to permit us to keep the boy.”

“If the environmentalists were sincere, they would object to CFLs because of the small amount of mercury in each of them,” says Myron Ebell, director of Freedom Action, a pro-market grassroots organization whose motto is “putting freedom on the offensive.” “They do object to minute amounts of mercury in airborne emissions from coal-fired power plants. The minute amounts of mercury in the air have trouble getting into anyone’s vital organs. However, the little bit of mercury from breaking a CFL bulb in your home could end up inside of you. I think the environmentalists are being very inconsistent.”

Old CFLs should be disposed of properly at recycling centers. Dream on. Most consumers will toss them in the trash with their tea bags. Mercury will accumulate in America’s landfills, possibly with disastrous results.

For all the energy it has invested in erasing Edison’s creation, Washington ultimately may swap the old “problem” of energy-inefficient incandescent bulbs for the new problem of mercury-oozing CFLs.

‐ Beyond mercury, CFLs present other health risks. They sometimes flicker, which can cause eye strain, headaches, and epileptic seizures. Some people with light-sensitive skin reportedly have suffered eczema-like symptoms thanks to CFLs.

‐ As Washington has hammered incandescents, some users have gravitated toward light-emitting diodes. While LEDs pose none of CFLs’ health risks, they present their own problems.

Shifting from Edison bulbs to LEDs can save cities and states money. Changing streetlights to LEDs has shrunk Wisconsin’s power bill by $750,000 annually, the Associated Press’s Dinesh Ramde reported in December 2009.

But “their great advantage is also their drawback,” Ramde wrote. “They do not waste energy by producing heat.” This means that the snow and ice that normally melt on contact with a hot, Edison-style streetlight or traffic signal instead coat LED fixtures. Street lights get whited out, “a problem blamed for dozens of accidents and at least one death,” Ramde explained.

This situation caused Duane Kassens, a Wisconsin driver, to get into a fender-bender. “The police officer told me the new lights weren’t melting the snow,” Kassens said. “How is that safe?”

In April 2009, Illinois officials say, motorist Lisa Richter began a left turn. Because of snow obstruction, an oncoming driver who could not see an LED-driven streetlight smashed into Richter, killing her at age 34.

“Would the accident have occurred if the lights had been clear?” Oswego police detective Rob Sherwood told the AP. “I would be willing to bet not.”

Several jurisdictions have addressed this challenge by retrofitting street lights with heating elements, such as those used on airport runway lights. This burns more energy — reducing the LEDs’ chief benefit.

‐ CFLs’ decreased warmth, meanwhile, may hike heating bills. Canada’s CBC News observed in March 2009 that “older incandescent bulbs do more than just light our homes. During the long winter months, they also generate heat.” CFLs, conversely, “produce minimal heat, so the loss has to be made up by fossil-fuel burning gas, oil, or wood to heat your home.” So CFLs’ power savings sometimes must wane to keep things warm.

‐ Although CFLs and LEDs supposedly save money in the long run, they cost much more up front. While Lowes.com charges 93 cents for a 100-watt incandescent bulb, equivalent CFLs are $4.49. Meanwhile, a 95-watt-equivalent LED bulb runs a staggering $69.98. If Edison bulbs vanish, does Washington really expect consumers to pay nearly $70 for an LED version of the still-reliable 100-watt incandescent?

‐ While employment tops America’s agenda, Washington’s War on Edison’s Bulb already has killed jobs. Last September, General Electric (a company founded by Edison) padlocked its last U.S. incandescent-bulb factory. “A variety of energy regulations will soon make the familiar lighting products produced at the Winchester [Virginia] Plant obsolete,” GE announced last year. Thus, 200 Americans lost their jobs, which paid some $30 per hour. In October 2008, GE shuttered six Ohio incandescent plants, leaving 425 workers in the dark. Meanwhile, labor-intensive CFL production is thriving . . . in China.

The Republican House will vote next Monday at 6:30 P.M. on a measure to repeal the Edison-bulb ban. Outstanding! This wicked law cannot be scrapped soon enough.

“If the American people needed another example of why it is time to roll back the hyper-regulation of the past four years, this is it,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), as she and Republican congressmen Joe Barton and Michael Burgess of Texas co-introduced legislation to overturn the bulb restrictions. Blackburn added:

Washington banned a perfectly good product and fired hard working Americans based on little more than their own whim and the silly notion that they know better than the American consumer. Now, hundreds more Americans are looking for work while assembly lines in China are churning out fluorescent bulbs for the US market. Tell me how that makes any sense at all.

Ultimately, this issue involves losing freedom. Washington could have declared the LP wasteful in the 1970s. After all, vinyl albums required lots of petroleum, large pieces of cardboard for record sleeves, and abundant energy to manufacture and transport such a hefty product. Congress could have banned the LP and prematurely steered music lovers toward eight-track tapes.

Suddenly, Sony and Philips developed the compact disc. CDs largely superseded LPs, only to yield lately to iTunes and (maddeningly) digital music theft. Nonetheless, a handful of vinyl diehards still exercise their freedom of choice and purchase brand-new LPs and even 45 RPM recordings marketed by specialty labels and purist music producers.

The Edison bulb likewise should compete with CFLs, LEDs, halogens, candles, and other current and future technologies. If the incandescent survives, splendid. If it eventually dies a natural death, or simply goes the way of the kerosene lamp (which remains barely available for the nostalgic), so be it.

However, Washington should not smother Edison’s bulb with a pillow, especially since incandescents outsold CFLs last year by three-to-one.

Thomas Alva Edison heroically expanded choices for American citizens. Washington robs choices from Americans — except for abortion. What a long shadow this frightful town casts across the nation.

— New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.

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