Fluorescent lamps
Credit: Oimax / Creative Commons

Aiming to reduce mercury hazards and boost energy efficiency, Vermont will prohibit the sale of the long, tube-shaped fluorescent lamps that light up supermarkets, office buildings and classrooms as of Jan. 1, 2024. 

It is the first state to adopt a law phasing out linear fluorescents, but California and Rhode Island have similar legislation pending. Energy efficiency advocates say fluorescents can now easily be swapped out for LED lights, which, unlike fluorescents, do not contain mercury. LEDs also consume far less electricity and last at least twice as long. 

“The LEDs have advanced so far and become so commonplace that the reaction now to this idea is, ‘Why wouldn’t we want to switch over?’” said Brian Fadie, a state policy associate for the Appliance Standards Awareness Project at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “If states choose to act, they can achieve great energy and mercury savings by transforming the market faster than it will transform on its own.” 

Vermont’s law specifically applies to the 4-foot linear fluorescents, which are by far the most common type on the market, Fadie said.

“LED sales have been increasing, but in 2021, 70% of linear lamp sales were fluorescent, with LEDs at 30%,” he said.

The “precursor” to this law was a law passed in 2011 that requires lighting manufacturers to arrange for the collection of expired fluorescent lamps at sites such as hardware stores and dispose of them safely, said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, known as VPIRG. 

Within that law is a provision that says that once a superior alternative becomes available at a similar cost, Vermont should stop the sale of fluorescents altogether, he said. 

Last October, VPIRG and others petitioned the state Department of Environmental Conservation to investigate whether that is now the case. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association weighed in, saying in a letter that similarly priced, non-mercury alternatives only exist for general-purpose, screw-in compact fluorescents, not for the linear lamps. 

In January, the agency moved to end just the sale of compact fluorescents in Vermont in February 2023.

VPIRG and the nonprofit Mercury Policy Project went to the legislature seeking the additional phase-out of the more ubiquitous linear lamps.

They came armed with a study by ACEEE that found that while LED bulbs cost a dollar or two more than their fluorescent equivalents, purchasers recoup that additional upfront cost in about two months because the LEDs are so much more efficient. 

The study estimated that a typical school with 980 fluorescent lamps would save about $3,700 annually in electricity bills by switching to LEDs, and more than $24,000 over the life of the bulbs.

“Between the legislative and agency action, there just won’t be any more of these bulbs sold,” Burns said. “A lot of this will go unnoticed, but people will ultimately save money over time, as the bulbs will need to be replaced less frequently and will cost less to run.”

Spencer Pederson, vice president for public affairs at the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, said the organization doesn’t object to the law “in principle.”

“However,” he said, “we believe a longer transition time than is allowed in the law could enable replacements to be provided in sufficient numbers and for consumers and commercial building owners to identify appropriate replacements.”

But Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project, which works internationally, noted that the European Union has set an even more aggressive target to phase out fluorescent lighting across Europe in 2023. 

“The fact that Europe can live without fluorescent lighting is an indicator to us that the manufacturer’s arguments don’t hold water,” he said.

Rhode Island’s legislation calls for the sale of compact fluorescents to be discontinued in January 2024, and linears in January 2025, dates that were arrived at through negotiations with a lobbyist for the manufacturers’ association, said state Rep. Arthur Handy, the bill’s lead sponsor. 

It passed the House last session, but didn’t get a Senate hearing before the session ended. Handy said he intends to “push hard for passage” when the next session opens in January. 

A report last year from the Clean Lighting Coalition outlined the health and environmental risks from lighting containing mercury. Among those most at risk from mercury exposure when lamps break are infants and toddlers, workers at manufacturing and recycling facilities, and residents of low-income neighborhoods.

Vermont has long been at the forefront of raising awareness of and minimizing risk from products containing mercury. In 1998, it became the first state to require products containing mercury, including fluorescents, to alert consumers on their labeling. 

“The National Electrical Manufacturers Association took the state to court, and after five years of working its way up through the system, the U.S. Supreme Court denied hearing the case and the law went into effect,” Bender said. 

That law ultimately caused the industry to label their fluorescent lighting products with an “Hg” throughout North America, since manufacturers don’t just sell their products into any one state, Bender said.

Lisa is a longtime journalist and native New Englander based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." Lisa covers New England.