Are CFL bulbs a health hazard?
What's the deal with mercury, ultraviolet light and electric magnetic fields?
Fri, Dec 10, 2010 at 02:28 PM
Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP News
If I asked you to draw a symbol representing an idea or thought it's a good chance you'll sketch a light bulb, specifically, the incandescent model. Well, hold on to that image because as part of the US government's Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 the incandescent bulb will be phased out by 2012. The compact fluorescent light (CFL), which is already being used around the globe and has a different look, will take its place as the bulb of the future.
Unlike incandescent bulbs the benefits of CFLs are clear: they include a much longer life, use far less electricity, and emit little heat. However, overshadowing the advantages are several important health concerns being raised not just in the US but around the world.
CFLs contain mercury. Is it dangerous?
On average CFLs contain abut four milligrams of mercury, a small trace of the highly toxic substance that is extremely hazardous when digested or inhaled. By comparison older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams, which is equal to the mercury in over 100 CFLs. According to the EPA, spilling more than a thermometer's worth but less than two tablespoons (one pound) necessitates a call to your local health or environmental agency. Anything more and that and the National Response Center (NRC) must be notified immediately. So what does this mean for a CFL that smashed in your house? It's a serious problem but not life threatening if handled properly. The immediate aftermath seems to be the most critical in terms of controlling contamination. Small children, pregnant woman, and pets are the most at risk. In the event a bulb breaks the EPA has a step by step list of what to do.
CFLs emit ultra violet (UV) light
Manufacturers say there is no health risk for prolonged usage, as eight hours of exposure to CFL UV light is about the same as one minute in full sunlight. For the average person this shouldn't be a problem, however, people with light sensitive disorders may feel differently. Some international studies revealed even small amounts of CFL UV light can aggravate symptoms in chronic actinic dermatitis (CAD), a state where the skin becomes inflamed after reacting to sun or artificial light, and solar urticaria, a rare condition in which exposure to UV light induces a case of hives on both covered and uncovered areas of the skin. For the general population, in order to evade skin and retinal damage studies in Canada and elsewhere suggest avoiding CFL exposure at distances less than 12 inches which could approach, but not exceed, acceptable limits. There is no cause for concern regarding skin cancer.
Blue light radiation, flicker, humming, electric magnetic fields (EMF)
These issues are associated with older florescent lights and affected people with conditions including epilepsy, lupus, and autism. According to the experts newer CFLs no longer pose a hazard.
For a list of further myths and facts about CFLs see this report by Consumer Reports.
Related CFL stories on MNN: