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Shedding Light on Another
Potential Fire Hazard

A couple of years ago, I moved into a new house and found in virtually every light socket a compact fluorescent lamp. These are the spiral light bulbs that are supposed to be much more energy efficient than the incandescent light bulb, which had been the standard since Thomas Edison perfected it in 1879. Indeed, CFLs last up to 15 times longer and use only one-third the energy of traditional light bulbs. Finding that my new home was festooned with them pleased me greatly, as I am equal parts environmentalist and cheapskate. I had read that should a CFL ever shatter the hazmat team should be dispatched because of the bulb’s high mercury content, but I wasn’t very concerned about that, as clumsiness is not amongst my traits.

But now I am concerned about CFLs, for an entirely different reason, and I think that you should be concerned about them too.

Not long ago, I was in the basement, tossing a load of laundry into the washer. The CFL burning brightly above my head began to flicker. I hadn’t expected that, because of their long lifespan, but I wasn’t completely surprised either, because I had no idea how long it had been in service; we bought the house from a relocation company and never met the previous owners, so I couldn’t ask them.

Burned CFL bulb Then something happened that was both startling and worrisome. The CFL continued to flicker for a time. I thought nothing of it, figuring that the bulb would eventually flicker one last time and then go dark, as incandescent bulbs do. Instead, small flames starting shooting out of the CFLs base. Instinctively, I reached for a t-shirt in the laundry basket to protect my hand from flames and the heat radiating from the bulb and unscrewed it from the light socket. As soon as the CFL was disconnected from the electrical source, the flames — which had scorched the bulb’s base — ceased. A noxious odor was present, which I presume was from the burning plastic.

We have an electrician in the family — a handy thing, if you ever have the choice — so I called him right away. I wanted to know if the problem was with the bulb or the light socket. I took photos of each and texted them to him. After viewing them, he assured me that the problem was the bulb. He also told me that such a thing would never happen with an incandescent bulb, as they are engineered to prevent it.

Knowing that the problem wasn’t the light socket was a relief — but only to a degree. I still have more than a dozen of these CFLs scattered throughout my home. That worries me. But what really freaks me out is the thought that I could have walked away from the washer, left the light on, and gone upstairs. Who knows what the flames shooting out of the bulb could have ignited?

I did a little research in the aftermath of this event and found a couple of interesting items. One was a news story from a few years ago that told of fire, which started with a CFL, that gutted a home. Apparently, such bulbs were not designed to be used with dimmer switches. I also found some anecdotal evidence that older bulbs have a tendency to overheat at the base. Given the long lifespan of CFLs, it’s reasonable to think that my bulb was one of those. It’s also reasonable to think that tens of thousands of these older bulbs still are in service across the country.

I placed a call to the National Fire Protection Association to see what it knows about the potential fire hazards of CFLs, and was told that such instances haven’t appeared in the NFPA’s statistics in huge numbers. “But we do get a call here and there,” said Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice president of communications. Carli added that the NFPA annually reviews its educational messages regarding fire prevention and safety, and that this year’s meeting will be held in about a month. She pledged to toss CFLs into the mix.

“That will give us a chance to have a discussion with people from other fire-safety organizations, to get a sense of whether they’re hearing things, and what should be the messaging about this,” Carli said. “Consistency of message is the big key.”

Maybe instances of CFLs catching fire haven’t shown up in the data in large numbers because they’re still relatively new and represent a very small market share compared with incandescent bulbs. Maybe it’s because what happened to me simply is an aberration. But what if it isn’t? It is my hope that fire departments will err on the side of caution regarding this matter and start making people aware of the potential dangers of CFLs. Safe always is better than sorry.

In the meantime, I will be heading soon to the home-improvement emporium in my town, to clean out its inventory of incandescent bulbs, which are scheduled to be phased out in the U.S. by 2014. It’s never too early to stockpile.