Fluorescent light bulbs have been marketed as ‘the green choice’ for many years. According to a Treehugger.com article, Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFL bulbs) earn this status because they:

  •  ‘use between 60% and 80% less energy than their incandescent counterparts’ (because they don’t use heat to create light… does that mean your heater would have to work harder/use more energy to warm up your house in winter? Hmm.)
  • ‘typically last between 6,000 and 15,000 hours, compared to 1,000 hours or so for incandescent bulbs’

Now, let’s just assume that this was actually the case (and there is some evidence that it’s NOT, i.e. CFL bulbs burning out far sooner than advertised). A light bulb that both lasts longer and uses less energy sounds like a winner, so shouldn’t we switch to CFL bulbs without further ado?! Not really, we think.  There are significant health and environmental risks associated with the use of CFL bulbs that makes them unacceptable to us.

  1. CFL bulbs each contain five milligrams of mercury which is a highly toxic substance. With the Maine safety standard of 300 nanograms per cubic meter, it would take 16,667 cubic meters of soil to “safely” contain all the mercury in a single CFL. You may have heard about the much-cited $2000 clean-up of a dropped CFL bulb in a Maine home. But even if ‘official recommendations’ usually stop shy of calling in a hazmat-team, the diy clean-up procedure suggested by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) sounds like a bit of a headache. Some of the highlights are:
    • ‘Do not use a vacuum cleaner to clean up the breakage. This will spread the mercury vapor and dust throughout the area and could potentially contaminate the vacuum.’
    • ‘Keep people and pets away from the breakage area until the cleanup is complete.’ (How about the person doing the clean-up??)
    • ‘Pat the area with the sticky side of duct tape, packing tape or masking tape to pick up fine particles. Wipe the area with a wet wipe or damp paper towel to pick up even finer particles.’
    • You have to also keep ventilating the area, collect the waste into an airtight container, ‘consider removing throw rugs or the area of carpet where the breakage occurred’, and
    • ‘take the glass container with the waste material to a facility that accepts “universal waste” for recycling. To determine where your municipality has made arrangements for recycling of this type of waste, call your municipal office or find your town in this list’.

    The DEP actually goes on to recommend, that ‘if consumers remain concerned regarding safety, they may consider not utilizing fluorescent lamps in situations where they could easily be broken. Consumers may also consider avoiding CFL usage in bedrooms or carpeted areas frequented by infants, small children, or pregnant women’. Yeah, I think we’ll pass.

  2. A recent article in The Telegraph cited a German study that found CFLs to release cancer-causing chemicals when switched on. These include
    • phenol (a strong neurotoxin ),
    •  naphthalene(if inhaled/sniffed/breathed in naphthalene is Highly Toxic)
    •  and styrene (several studies have reported an increase in leukemia and lymphoma among workers in the styrene manufacturing industry).

    In fact the article quotes Peter Braun, who carried out the tests at the Berlin’s Alab Laboratory, saying: “For such carcinogenic substances it is important they are kept as far away as possible from the human environment.”. Holy cow!

  3. The large proportion of blue light from fluorescent bulbs can lead to a diminished production of melatonin, an important hormone.  This may then lead to various health issues such as cardiovascular illnesses, cancer, and sleeping disorders.
  4. According to scientists of the UK Government, many of the energy-saving bulbs emit more harmful ultraviolet radiation than the guidelines recommend.
  5. An Australian study reported that ‘exposure to fluorescent light at work was associated with a doubling of melanoma risk. (…) The risk grew with increasing duration of exposure to fluorescent light and was higher in women who had worked mainly in offices’
  6. Studies have concluded that the imperceptible flicker from fluorescent lights can cause loss of concentration and headaches.
  7. Other issues associated with fluorescent light exposure include confusion, attention deficit disorder, dermatitis, fatigue, learning difficulties, reduced muscle strength, increased stress levels, and more.
  8. CFLs have also been said to  ‘cause people with epilepsy to experience symptoms similar to the early stages of a fit
  9. In 2012, a study has been published with the title: RADIOACTIVITY RISK ASSOCIATED WITH THE HANDLING OF COMPACT FLUORESCENT LAMPS. I admit that I haven’t read the article, nor does the abstract mean much to me… but I find the title alone quite unsettling.

What do you think: Are the potential energy and financial savings worth the risks to health and environment??

Even if you don’t use fluorescent light bulbs at home, you’re probably still exposed to them in places like supermarkets or your workplace. How many light bulbs break when stocked or changed? And how often do you think the recommended clean-up protocol is followed?

I came across this excellent blog on the dangers of fluorescent light bulbs, if you’d like to read further on this topic.