WARNING: Teflon-Coated Light Bulbs Toxic to Chickens: The Full Story by Lynn Rudmin Chong from the October/November, 2012 issue of Backyard Poultry

February 7, 2013

Teflon-Coated Light Bulbs
Toxic to Chickens

The Full Story

By Lynn Rudmin Chong

New Hampshire

In the August/September 2012 issue of Backyard Poultry, page 8, readers were warned about the dangers of Teflon-coated light bulbs. Now Lynn Rudmin Chong shares the full details of the bird deaths and her communication with GE in her efforts to get the company to add a warning label to the Teflon-coated bulb packaging.

If you are going to use light bulbs in your coop — for added warmth or to keep the hens laying — do not use Teflon-coated bulbs and please, share this information with everyone you know! —Ed.

In winter 2011 I went to the local Wal-Mart’s lightbulb section to buy a new heat light for my chicken coop. I use a heat light both to keep their space warm and to keep their water dish from freezing. I like to keep a back-up ready, and I had no extra bulb. On a store shelf nearby I saw a light bulb new to me: GE’s Rough Service Worklight 100. The package informed me that this bulb, when dropped, would not shatter due to a "protective coating." That seemed like a good idea and I bought one.

On February 6, 2011, I switched out one of my two heat lights with the new 100-watt bulb close to the water dish. I changed the bulb; I fed and watered my flock of 22 chickens and one pheasant. When next I saw them that night, I opened the door to a horrifying sight. On the floor were dead birds lying on their backs, their necks stretched long, and their legs in the air. Nineteen birds—including my lovely pheasant—lay, breathing no more. Walking among them were four puzzled hens, that I’d noted in the morning were eating atop the cage, with its tall legs so they’d been up by the ceiling. I’d think more about that later.

Two by two I lifted my dead birds and laid them out in the attached feed shed. Rick Chick, a multi-colored bantam rooster who’d have been 12 years old in March, gave me pause. With a loving gesture, I’d touched his wing that morning. Handling "Pheasant-ay" drew sobs from me, remembering the mornings she gave me a long, clear whistle-note of greeting. "Bob’s girls" were all dead; these were five bantam hens I’d had since November of 2006, when an elderly friend, Bob Bucklin, died, and I brought home some of his birds. Hens that were still in their first year that I had raised since chicks were now dead. The rooster named Lucky, who’d come from a chicken swap, was dead at under one year old. I went into the house and told my husband Rob, "Something killed my chickens today." He listened, and I cried.

Examples of GE’s packaging alongside Sylvania’s packaging: GE packaging contains some warnings, but does not mention the dangers of Teflon to confined birds. Sylvania’s package shows warning label clearly, as seen below: The appeal of the "safety coating" is that the "protective coating helps contain glass fragments if broken." Unfortunately for Lynn, there was no warning that it can be fatal to birds, and she lost 19 of her dear birds.

The next day we took four birds—two young (Lucky and one hen) and two old (Rick Chick and Pheasant-ay)—to the University of New Hampshire Extension Service. I’d called ahead. Ever since the warning of Asian bird flu, I’d mentally been prepared for something like this. If we had Asian bird flu, the authorities needed to know. But what about my four birds still alive and healthy? What was the story here?

Dr. Inga Sidor called me and told me that my birds were all basically healthy, even the older two. She asked me, "Do you have Teflon in your shed?" I said, "No, I think Teflon is toxic. The only thing different was the new light bulb." She asked its name, and I told her: "GE Rough Service Worklight 100." I had the package nearby. As she sat at her desk in Durham she did an Internet search, and right away came up: "Teflon-coated." She told me that my birds appeared to have died of gassing from the Teflon.

We already would be paying for the initial necropsy report. In the next weeks we decided to pay for the electron microscopy, which would more definitively confirm gassing by Teflon.

Immediately I felt remorseful and foolish, as well as sad. Why hadn’t I thought to wonder, "Protectively coated with what?" An Internet search of "Teflon toxic to birds" brings up lots to read, but I’d fallen down on this one, and now my birds were dead. I’ve kept chickens since 1980, always providing complete care resulting in long, healthy lives. I let birds die of old age. I take other people’s non-layers and let them have retirement. I once even gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a bantam hen, and she survived.

"WARNING: This product contains PTFE. When heated, it creates fumes potentially fatal to confined birds."

I called GE’s light bulb division in Cleveland, Ohio. I believed they’d want to know what happened to my birds from their Teflon-coated light bulb. Our first exchange was that I should send them my "defective bulb." I insisted the bulb worked, but that the Teflon-coating should be noted on the packaging. I would not call it a "defective bulb" but talked of "poorly-labeled package." I considered this an emergency and I wanted the GE Rough Service Worklight 100 packaging fixed with a sticker, so other bird owners wouldn’t go through what my chickens and I went through.

I agreed to send them the bulb, but said I’d want a receipt that the package arrived. My most immediate concern was my remaining four hens that had apparently escaped the gassing by being up close to the ceiling. The gassing must have happened when the new bulb first heated up, and the gas stayed along the floor. The four hens could walk around later and be okay.

From friends I got two hens. From an Agway employee I got two rooster-brothers. Adding the roosters made it more normal for this small flock, now six hens and two roosters. In early March I bought 12 bantam chicks. Three days later my daughter Marcy called to tell me that four of the dead hens’ eggs she’d put into her tabletop incubator hatched, so we had four chicks there. The flock integrated fine after a day of adjusting. I had to keep adjusting myself.

It made me (and continues to make me) angry that a poorly labeled light bulb killed my innocent chickens and pheasant. GE’s insurer, Electric Insurance Company, sent me a $782 check to cover the cost of the veterinarian’s testing and the replacement cost of 12 bantam chicks. The insurance lady humanely expressed sympathy for my dead birds. In that process I had to sign an agreement not to talk to the media about this. I decided to hold back and not cash the check, if I could get some media coverage. I’d rather have the word spread about the dangers of this GE product than have back the money we’d spent. My husband agreed. I let Electric Insurance know my intention, and was directed to send the check back to Electric Insurance Company, not to GE, if I decided not to cash it.

Lynn Chong holds one of her new roosters, Red Roger, named by her grandson. Photo by Jennifer Syphers.

With faxing and phone calling and looking online for the names of the head honchos at GE, I continued my effort to get their Rough Service Worklight "with protective coating" properly labeled. I visited hardware stores’ light bulb displays, always hoping I’d see the miraculous, truthful label on the dangerous GE bulb. I bought more of these bulbs and kept the dated receipts, tracking how much time was passing while assuming—dreadfully—that other chicken owners were making the same mistake. I still thought that in one year’s time it will have happened: the bulbs will be labeled. I was not a big enough mosquito in their corporate ear, however.

In late 2011 I learned that Sylvania has a similar Teflon-coated bulb, the "Sylvania Rough Service Frosted." The packaging has two bold labels: one yellow circle-label reads: "Advanced Lamp Coatings Safety Coating Tefcote." The other oblong, red label reads: "WARNING: This product contains PTFE. When heated, it creates fumes potentially fatal to confined birds." When I spoke with someone at Advanced Lamp Coatings in New York, I asked what caused the company to label the bulb that way. The answer was, "We read about the danger to birds."

I let GE know that. I contacted both the Connecticut corporate headquarters and the Cleveland light bulb division. I faxed photos of the warning stickers on the Sylvania bulb alongside the lack of warning on their Rough Service Worklight 100. GE remains uninterested in adding a warning.

So not all companies are alike, I can appreciate that. I am in my late sixties, and remember, however, learning the GE jingle, "We bring good things to life!" that I sang as a child. I swallow hard on the irony that in this case their product brought sudden death.

I feel some relief with the opportunity to have readers of Backyard Poultry learn what happened to me and my birds. Other flock owners should know that not all light bulbs are equal. Please pass this article onto others, and give it to store owners too.

Each time I see a GE Rough Service Worklight 100 (I’ve seen them as 75-watt, too), I tell the store owner or clerk what happened to me. I ask, "Would you want your customers to experience this, from something they buy in your store?" I always hear an adamant, "No!"

I truly don’t know why GE doesn’t respect that stores value customer relations and why they don’t seem to value these same good relations.

According to email communications between Lynn and Electric Insurance Company, the $782 check came from Electric Insurance Company, not GE, to compensate her for her "out of pocket expenses associated with the incident. While we did this pursuant to our contract to insure GE it was not done at their behest or instruction."—Ed.