Are CFL Bulbs Bad For Your Health?

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.

Other Sources:


  2 comments for “Are CFL Bulbs Bad For Your Health?

  1. Liz Anderson
    July 13, 2011 at 3:03 am

    Thank you for your research. I find CFL’s a milketoast substitute because I have difficulty discerning black from navy blue when a CFL is on, and if the sun hasn’t completely gone down outside the inside light is too yellow to see fine details. As with most things, the US’s attempt at more legislation instead of more choice is a real sticking point. I’ve heard of next generation bulbs that will put out a better light for 22 years, but at the cost of $22 or better at this time. We can only hope they arrive more cost effective in the marketplace to replace these gastly CFL’s.

  2. John S
    January 7, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Never really liked CFL’s. The first ones I bought when they were fisrt in the market lasted only a few months. The next batch have lasted longer because I bought a name brand like Phillips. Don’t ever buy Wal-Mart junk. But I have found that the light quality varies greatly and a lot of the problems just seem to come from poor quality. I think its a joke to think people will recycle or dispose of them correctly. In many places I do not even know where I could take them. Just imagine how many will end up in landfills. Especially since if they are like my experience have failed much earlier then promised. Do I think the real solution is LED’s? Well if you have seen some of the LED bulbs they are pretty expensive and who really wants to spend $15 on one bulb? Even $5 is a reach for me. I can tell you this whole switch to Green type bulbs is not helping my pocketbook and at the cost of the bulbs. I would have to keep them a long time to make that extra money spent on them back.

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