Many sensationalist news reports have been published over the years claiming some new fangled gadget – be it a vaccine, a microwave, a mobile phone or now, an energy saving light – is really evil incarnate or at least a little questionable. But often these reports are so extreme that they seem ridiculous and indeed are ridiculed by mainstream science. But does some of that smoke indicate at least a little fire?
In recent months mobile phones have again come under the spotlight and all the previous assurances that they are completely safe have been called into question, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) announcing that exposure to cell phone radiation is “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, after all. Then, a report from a Council of Europe committee, highlighted the potential health risks of wireless technologies including mobile (cell) phones, cordless telephones and baby monitors, as well as wireless networks, and as recommended, among other things banning all mobile phones and wireless networks in classrooms and schools. The committee also highlighted the importance of avoiding the mistakes made when public health officials were slow to recognise the dangers of asbestos, tobacco smoking and lead in petrol.
So much for mobile phones. What about compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) then? Are they too tainted, or is the jury still out? This is what I can tell you: The main complaints against CFLs (and by repeating them, I do not intend to credit or discredit them) are:
- They contain mercury, which is bad for people (if they break) and the environment
- They flicker, even though not at a detectable level (as the old style fluorescent lights did)(if it is detectable, your light is on the way out and should be replaced)
- They emit different levels of UV radiation than incandescent lights
- They produce a higher electromagnetic field (EMF) than incandescent bulbs, and a higher level of “dirty electricity”.
So what does all this mean? Well, the general consensus among mainstream science seems to be “not much”. However, that’s what they said about mobile phones (which also have charges of problems because of their EMF) until very recently. However:
- It is argued that the mercury saved from entering the environment from burning coal to produce the electricity required for incandescent light bulbs is greater than that in used in CFLS, and that if you clean up appropriately after breaking a CFL personal exposure is negligible.
- CFLs flicker at approximately 10000-40000Hz, whereas old style tubes flickered at 60Hz. People with photosensitive epilepsy generally react to a flicker rate between 8-30Hz, or flashes per second. Any research I found showing other effects of flicker rate were out of date and referred to older style fluorescent lights, though people do report issues such as headaches and sleep problems anecdotally.
- The UV radiation they emit is very slightly higher than incandescents in some cases (it depends on the light actually). If you are UV sensitive (eg some Lupus sufferers), this can be ameliorated by using a light shade!
- They do produce higher EMF than incandescent bulbs. The issue of dirty electricity is not so clear cut. However EMF degrades very quickly with distance, so if you are concerned, consider only using CFLs in overhead lights, not in desk or table lights.
- LEDs are cleaner in just about every way than CFLs, including the fact that they use less energy. It is generally expected that as LED technology improves they will take the place of CFLs. Presently they are not considered great options for room lighting, due to being too directionally focused. However, this makes them excellent spotlights, and also suitable as desk or reading lamps.
- In the meantime, modern halogen lights are another option. They use more energy than CFLs, but still use less than incandescents.
Finally, the one area where CFLs could be having a clear impact is on your eye sight. It seems that many CFLs are not actually quite as bright as they are “supposed” to be – so consider buying slightly higher wattage (I’m moving up from 12 watt to 15 watt in some areas) to be sure your eye sight is not being compromised by dim lighting.
So, are CFLs bad for your health? I think the evidence is not all in, but that in light of what we do know using them with some caution is probably a reasonable compromise. For myself I will be removing the one in my bedside lamp, but keeping those in my overhead lights for now, and trading up to LEDs as soon as it’s practical.