Donald Trump’s complaints about light bulbs, fact-checked

Compact fluorescent, incandescent and LED bulbs are all still available on the market. LEDs are the dominant technology, despite President Donald Trump's complaints about CFLs.
Compact fluorescent, incandescent and LED bulbs are all still available on the market. LEDs are the dominant technology, despite President Donald Trump's complaints about CFLs.

After his administration scrapped a rule that would have phased out incandescent light bulbs, President Donald Trump jokingly complained that newer bulbs make him look orange. 

His Energy Department’s move slows a yearslong push by Congress and past administrations to switch Americans to LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs and other lighting that uses less electricity.

While not citing LEDs specifically, Trump went on a bit of a rant about newer bulbs while speaking at the House Republicans’ annual retreat in Baltimore Sept. 12, making three claims worth checking out.

On top of the bad lighting, Trump said they are expensive and are considered hazardous waste.

His claims have some truth  — but only as they apply to compact fluorescent bulbs (typically spiral shaped), which are newer than incandescent but older than LEDs, which now dominate the market.

"The light bulb. People said, what’s with the lightbulb? I said, here’s the story. And I looked at it. The bulb that we’re being forced to use — number one, to me, most importantly, the light's no good. I always look orange, and so do you; the light is the worst." — Trump

Trump’s campaign organization didn’t provide us with any information to back up this statement.

But the light-quality criticism is overly broad.

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Some compact fluorescent bulbs, which were created in 1976, don’t have good light quality, said Noah Horowitz, director of the Center For Energy Efficiency Standards, Climate & Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But those fluorescent bulbs, also called CFLs, are being supplanted by LEDs. More than 1 billion LED bulbs have been purchased in the United States, and sales are growing as prices have decreased and CFL sales are plummeting, Horowitz said.

Indeed, Trump’s Energy Department says that quality LEDs "offer comparable or better light quality than other types of lighting."

"Incandescents have a limited spectrum, whereas there are many options for LEDs, often making the quality of light better than incandescents," said Mark Rea, professor at the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

"But number two, it’s many times more expensive than that old incandescent bulb that worked very well." — Trump

His statement was short sighted.

His campaign cited a light bulb wholesaler website that said CFLs "initially cost more than conventional bulbs but have the potential to save you money in the long run because of their longevity and efficiency."

But LEDs are an even better bargain.

They can cost three times as much as incandescents, but they are five times more energy efficient and last 10 times as long, Rea said.

That means a savings of $25 to $100 or more over the 10- to 25-year lifetime of a new LED, said Horowitz.

"And very importantly, I don't know if you know this, they have warnings. If it breaks, it’s considered a hazardous waste site; it’s gases inside." — Trump

Again, he’s referring to CFLs, not LEDs.

CFLs contain low levels of mercury, so the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does consider them "household hazardous waste." The agency recommends they be recycled, as some communities provide for, rather than thrown into the regular household trash.

Mercury is a liquid, but it can evaporate and become a vapor. At high exposure levels, it can be a health hazard.

Trump’s campaign pointed out that authorities in King County, Wash., issued a 15-step guide for cleaning up a broken fluorescent bulb. They include venting the room and using rubber gloves to put the broken pieces in a sealed container.

However, those recommendations are for CFLs. In contrast, LEDs pushed by the Obama administration are mercury free and don’t contain any gases, Rea and Horowitz said. LEDs can be disposed of in the regular trash.

Talking about CFLs is misleading, Rea said, because LEDs "are the only relevant lighting technology."