Are CFL Light Bulbs a Fire Hazard?

Woman screwing a CFL light bulb into a lamp

Peter Dressel / Getty Images

A forwarded email claims compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs made in China and sold under the brand name 'Globe' pose a fire hazard and should be avoided. Let's investigate these claims.

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Forwarded Email

This forwarded email or viral text has been circulating since July 2010. This is an example of the message, as sent to an AOL user on January 17, 2011.

Subject: CFL light bulbs

Below is a picture of a CFL light bulb from my bathroom. I turned it on the other day and then smelled smoke after a few minutes. Four inch flames were spewing out of the side of the ballast like a blow torch! I immediately turned off the lights. But I'm sure it would have caused a fire if I was not right there. Imagine if the kids had left the lights on as usual when they were not in the room.

I took the bulb to the Fire Department to report the incident. The Fireman wasn't at all surprised and said that it was not an uncommon occurrence. Apparently, sometimes when the bulb burns out there is a chance that the ballast can start a fire. He told me that the Fire Marshall had issued reports about the dangers of these bulbs.

Upon doing some Internet research, it seems that bulbs made by "Globe" in China seem to have the lion’s share of problems. Lots of fires have been blamed on misuse of CFL bulbs, like using them in recessed lighting, pot lights, dimmers or in track lighting. Mine was installed in a normal light socket.

I bought these at Wal-Mart. I will be removing all the Globe bulbs from my house. CFL bulbs are a great energy saver but make sure you buy a name brand like Sylvania, Phillips or GE and not the ones from China.


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Given that the author of this harrowing account chose to remain anonymous, we have no way of following up to confirm such details as "four-inch flames" spewing out of the ballast "like a blow torch," or the statement attributed to an unnamed fireman to the effect that this is "not an uncommon occurrence." It's well to remember that where online rumors are concerned, hyperbole is the rule, not the exception.

It's true that when a CFL bulb burns out it may emit a bit of smoke and its plastic base may become blackened, as seen in the photo above. According to the safety testing company Underwriters Laboratory, this is normal and not dangerous. Per U.S. Energy Star safety standards, all plastics used in the manufacture of CFL bulbs bearing the Energy Star label must be flame retardant. When used as directed, properly manufactured CFL bulbs are actually safer than standard incandescent light bulbs (look for an "Energy Star" and/or "UL," for Underwriters Laboratory, symbol on the label when purchasing).

Use as directed

CFLs do become potentially hazardous when safety instructions aren't followed, however. Here's a list of "CFL Don'ts" from the San Francisco Fire Department:

  • CFLs should NOT be used in track, recessed or inverted fixtures
  • CFLs should NOT be used with a dimmer switch UNLESS clearly marked otherwise
  • CFLs should NOT be used in place of a 3-way bulb, UNLESS clearly marked otherwise
  • CFLs being used outdoors MUST be enclosed
  • CFLs should NOT be used in emergency exit fixtures or lights
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Brands and Recall Information

As to the claim that "bulbs made by 'Globe' in China seem to suffer the lion's share of problems," no evidence has ben found to confirm this. Apart from an announcement made in 2004 that a small number of Globe 13-watt mini spiral CFLs manufactured between January 2002 and April 2003 contained non-compliant parts and may have had safety issues, Globe brand CFLs have not been singled out as a fire hazard by authorities.

'Trisonic' brand recall

In October 2010, the Consumer Products Safety Commission announced a voluntary recall of Trisonic brand CFL bulbs after several safety incidents were reported, including two fires resulting in minor property damage.