Burning issue: CFL light bulbs

DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – The traditional light bulb is out and new, more energy-efficient bulbs are in, and what sounds good for the environment might not be all good for the consumer.

One consumer, Gery Deer, took his burned out bulb to 2 NEWS Investigates.  “We’re popping this into our lamp like an ordinary light bulb and it’s not.  It has its problems and people should know about them,” said Deer.

Deer says he was quick to jump on the energy-efficient bulb bandwagon, but now he’s not so sure all because of what happened to a compact fluorescent bulb in his home.

“I can smell ozone, I can smell burning plastic and a little bit of hot ceramic and I’m used to those odors from my testing days,” Deer told 2 NEWS Investigates.

Deer says he used to test prototype oven ranges under safety guidelines, so he knows the smell of something gone wrong.  The bulb was cracked, discolored, and melted.

Deer says one day he turned on his kitchen lights and stepped away for a minute. When he came back, it was dark.  The bulb had burned out.

Deer said, “This isn’t just a diode going out with a little whiff of smoke which they tell you is supposed to happen. That is too much.That is something escaping the casing of the device. To my mind that’s unsafe.”

The bulb is a GE Helical 20 watt bulb complete with the familiar UL mark which means the product has been tested for safety, fire hazards, electric shock hazards, and mechanical hazards.

2 NEWS Investigates sent a photo of the bulb to the consumer safety director of UL, Underwriters Laboratories near Chicago.

John Drengenberg responded, ” What we’re seeing in the picture of this particular compact fluorescent light bulb is nothing unusual. This is the way they end their life. This is a newer technology. We consumers have to get used to it.”

But the manufacturer of the bulb, General Electric, says this is not typical, such discoloration is rare.
GE’s Lighting spokeswoman, Megan Lavelle, sent 2 NEWS Investigates the following statement:

All GE consumer lighting products comply with all federal, state and international safety requirements. We value our customers and take their concerns very seriously. We conduct rigorous testing of our light bulb products; our CFL bulbs are independently tested by Underwriters Laboratories, and many of our consumer products are tested by other independent labs for major retailers in the U.S. While the vast majority of our light bulbs burn out in an ordinary manner, in rare cases, a CFL bulb can become discolored at the base of the bulb at the end of its useful life, or earlier if damaged. If this happens, the CFL is designed to help ensure a safe failure. You can contact our customer service team, 1-800-435-4448, to report any questions or concerns with our product. As part of our continuous improvement efforts, we appreciate receiving all consumer feedback to help ensure the highest quality performance from our lighting products.

Lavelle said from the photo it looks like an example of a safe failure, but consumers do have their concerns. 2 NEWS Investigates found a website with more than 140 complaints about GE light bulbs, among them comments about CFLs smoking, shooting flames,and melting.

YouTube videos also exist of bulbs from various manufacturers that look like Deer’s.

2 NEWS Investigates took Deer’s bulb to the Director of Corporate Communications for Dayton Power & Light, a company that is handing out and discounting CFL bulbs because they are considered energy savers. DP&L doesn’t do any of its own testing.

Pam Elliot: Look what happened in his kitchen fixture, that melting. Have you seen anything like that before?

Mary Ann Kabel: No, but he might want to go to electrician to see if the circuitry in his home may have something to do with this. It’s not with the bulb, but I would definitely check the circuitry in his home.

Pam Elliot:So something like an incandescent bulb would not have necessarily been a problem, but this might, in the circuitry because he didn’t have any problems before is what I’m saying with the incandescent bulb. You wouldn’t know?

May Ann Kabel: I would just have him double-check with an electrician.

So Pam Elliot showed the bulb to Jeff Bonham of Jeff Bonham Electric.

“No, there’s nothing wrong with the circuitry necessarily because the circuitry is outside it. Ok, you’ve got a hot wire and a neutral coming into a socket. And that’s all attached here. If there let’s say a problem in the socket, you’d see burn marks here. All the problem is up here in the actual light bulb,” Bonham told 2 NEWS Investigates.

Bonham recommends skipping CFLs altogether and buying LED bulbs. LED stands for light emitting diodes.  They cost more, but he considers them safer because they don’t contain mercury and they don’t give off ultraviolet radiation like CFLs do.

Pam Elliot: But this is a household item, Jeff. It’s like buying toilet paper. Shouldn’t it be already safe or at least clearly marked? Jeff Bonham: It should be, you’re absolutely right.

But, there are no warnings on Deer’s CFL bulb about fires, mercury, or UV exposure, only warnings about electrical shock due to water and using the bulb in luminaires controlled by a dimmer. The boxes don’t appear to caution consumers much either.

“My favorite line in all this, it’s even highlighted in a different color it says, ‘anywhere you can use an incandescent light bulb.'”

UL stands by its stamp.

Drengenberg said, “We’ve seen this happen. We’ve heard about them. We’ve done investigations on them and found  this is just the way they burn out.”

This is a burning issue that is not going to go away, and GE told me the company wants to hear from you if you have any problems with its products.  You can call 1-800-435-4448.

You can still find incandescent bulbs on store shelves, but once they’re gone they’re gone. The U.S. says they can’t be manufactured or imported anymore.

 

 

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