Light Bulb Dilemma: Halogen, Fluorescent, LED?

Incandescent bulbs: still available but being phased out, & with hot summer you hardly need the heat. How do the new bulbs impact health, planet?

With incandescents being phased out (Kenneth Artz. “GE Closes Its Last U.S. Incandescent Light Bulb Plant”), and some of the newer bulbs, particularly fluorescents and halogens, taking over store shelves, consumers are faced with the option of either hoarding the less expensive incandescent bulbs while these last, or choosing among the newer bulbs.

Options include halogen bulbs, the new versions of fluorescent bulbs, and LEDs. Consumers should weigh bulb prices, longevity, and efficiency against health and disposal issues. (If none of the new options seems right, natural light can always be reflected in old-fashioned mirrors.)


Halogen bulbs, hotter self-cleaning versions of incandescents, may produce the most natural although not the most efficient lighting of the three. Halogen gas helps clean the bulbs and renew the filaments provided the bulbs are hot enough, The newer versions with krypton are more efficient than the bulbs with halogen. The quartz bulbs are stronger than traditional incadescents but get so hot they are not suitable for some locations. Disposal is at least easy: the tungsten filament is not considered hazardous. As for the excess heat, it may be wasteful in hot summer, but is less so in winter.


Fluorescent bulbs, at least in terms of purchase price, are the least costly. According to “light therapist” David Olszewski (October, 1999, “Light and Health”), there may be also some health/decorating advantages to the more energy-efficient fluorescent lighting: it provides a greater range of light, and thus like halogen lighting, approximates natural light. Olszewski says that the newer fluorescents also flicker at a speed so fast you’ll not notice the flicker, and that all you need to do is tape the ends with duct tape to prevent the escape of any x-rays.

Olszewski notes that researcher/Walt Disney photographer John Ott (“Health and Light”) reported that “six major types of fluorescent lights being used at that time caused a significantly higher mutation rate in offspring (mutated genes and birth defects).” However Olszewski believes the cause of mutations in these instances was the fluorescents’ color and not flicker or escaping gas.

The fluorescent bulbs do not get quite so hot as halogens and traditional incandescents. There is however a delay before the gas lights, making them inappropriate for entry ways. Another problem with fluorescents is that the mercury gas in them is a major source of stream pollution. It’s also dangerous if you break a bulb. Disposal of fluorescent bulbs by businesses but not individuals is regulated by the EPA.

LED Lighting

LEDs (light emitting diodes) provide much cooler light than either fluorescent or halogen bulbs, in a variety of colors, without the gas associated with headaches or cancer. The color varies with the wavelength’s frequency. Wavelength varies according to the electrons exchanged by semi-conductor materials in the lights: the more electrons exchanged, the higher the frequency and bluer the light.

Many LED lights may end up being grey, however, according to Lucy Martin, of John Cullen Design (Lights Out: the End of Tungsten). Blue LEDs may be the least expensive, while green and white may be available in the future.

The LED bulbs are of course the priciest of the three bulb types, but are safer than fluorescent and last much longer. Silver is used to reflect and intensify light in LEDs, which is what makes breaking one so costly. Otherwise, if you can afford the initial investment, LEDs, when all is considered, produce energy for the lowest cost. Unfortunately LEDs like fluorescents may present disposal problems as they contain heavy metals. Lead and heavy metal content is highest for red-colored LEDs but heavy metals are also found in yellow LEDs.

Ways to Reduce Flicker, Pollution?

As with traditional fluorescent lighting, the LED light ‘s brightness goes up and down according to household current, which as noted cycles at 60 times/second. Some people may notice this flicker; others may not. One way to get rid of it is to buy “rectified lighting,” which is brighter too because it makes use of multiple lights, with some lights coming on when others go off. The speed of change is high making the flicker almost unnoticeable. If you want to get rid of the flicker completely you may need to add a capacitator, which collects current when current flows and releases it when current is not flowing, allowing for almost even flow of current to the light.

One way to make LEDs safer in terms of health and waste may be to find materials to replace the lead and gallium (both heavy metals) used in the red LEDs. Red-colored lighting may be the best, incidentally, for night vision and star gazing: because of the low energy of red light waves, they actually are similar to darkness (look at a stop sign in the dark: what do you see? ). LEDs are for sale primarily in the West (EU, Canada, U.S.), while compact flourescent lighting, which is the most popular worldwide, is the primary option in Asia.

Low-wattage Versus High-wattage Bulbs

According to The Great Internet Light Bulb Book, Part I, buying high-wattage bulbs can give you more energy efficiency, since low-wattage bulbs are built to last, not to be efficient. However doing so means you no longer have the option of lighting just a small area when that’s all you need, which is another way to save energy.

Mirrors, Light Colors: Reflecting Natural Light

Using mirrors or mirror tiles to reflect natural light is one way to reduce the need for light bulbs entirely. Light colors also reflect natural light. Alternately semi-transparent plastic “windows” in room dividers let light through while providing privacy in say a door between a bath and a hall. This extra light may hardly be sufficient for reading but can brighten a room.

Most ordinary mirrors backed with silver or even steel are designed not to reflect much heat, only light, so are great in the summer. The most reflective metals for the visible spectrum include polished silver, aluminum, tin, and nickel. Copper on the other hand may emit infrared radiation (absorbed heat), while ceramics primarily reflect infrared radiation so are used only in heating.

Lighting Concepts: Reflectivity & Emissivity

It should be emphasized here that emissivity, energy absorbed then emitted, is different from reflected energy (in mirrors). Emissivity is what is involved in lighting a tungsten filament in an incandescent or halogen bulb. It may be higher at hotter temps for metals, and is higher at shorter (higher energy) wavelengths. Actually both emissivity and reflectivity vary according to the material and the wavelength. Thus, on playground swings in the summer heat, “warm colors” (browns, dark yellows) may stay cooler than black, or white, or blue. Again, LEDs use silver to reflect the light they emit, and so make use of both,

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