Compact Fluorescent Lamps – The Facts and the Fiction

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I have always been a big supporter of Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs). I don’t see any reason not to be. They use significantly less energy than their incandescent cousins, the spectrum of light they emit is (at least now) very comfortable, and while they do contain mercury they are recyclable. I could never fathom a reason not to replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescently until recently when a family member, who shall remain anonymous, proudly told me that there was no way she would risk her or her husband’s health by using fluorescent lighting in or around their home.

What? Health risks? I never heard anything about health risks.

So I did what any self-respecting scientist would do – I googled it.

It turns out that CFLs have inherited the bad reputation of their dinosaur grandparents – the traditional fluorescent. Traditional fluorescent bulbs have a host of problems that can cause symptoms such as headache and fatigue, such as a perceptible flickering, a humming noise, and an unnatural wavelength of light. Luckily technology has improved in leaps and bounds and CFLs do not display any of these problems.

When people talk of the health risks of using CFLs they usually cite 3 major problems:

1.              Radiation of UV light: UV light refers to light with frequency between 280 – 400 nm (nanometers), low enough that it cannot be seen by the human eye. The sun emits UV light, and it is what causes your skin to ‘burn’ if you stay exposed for too long. It is true that all fluorescent bulbs emit some UV radiation, but in order to measure the UV radiation emitted from a standard CFL very sensitive equipment is needed. The FDA does not consider the UV radiation emitted by CFLs to be a health risk.

2.              Magnetic Fields: A magnetic field is created around any electrical device when electricity flows through it. Like all other electrical appliances in your home CFLs emit an magnetic field, but these fields are well below the international guidelines.

3.              Mercury Poisoning: Mercury (a.k.a. quicksilver) is a metallic element that is toxic to humans and animals at high enough doses. CFLs have a small amount of mercury in them – about the amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. If the CFL is intact there is no danger of mercury poisoning. If the glass of a CFL is broken, special precautions need to be used (see below) to ensure you and your family are not unnecessarily exposed to mercury vapors.

There is a small portion of the population who unfortunately suffer from medical conditions that make them particularly sensitive to UV or even visible light (some forms of lupus). Unfortunately, some of these people report undesirable symptoms during and after exposure to the light emitted from CFLs. If you have such a medical disorder, CFLs may not be the best solution for your home, but for the rest of the population there is no reason to shy away from CFLs.

Clean-up procedure: Breakage of a CFL should always be taken seriously and dealt with immediately. If you break a CFL follow these guidelines, set by the EPA.

Recycling CFLs: Check out this great resource that the EPA put together on how and why to recycle your spent CFLs.

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