For those of us born and raised in the great North, there is probably no sweeter words than that…. LIGHT! March 20, 2016 marks the Northern Hemisphere Spring Equinox. The temperatures are becoming warmer and the natural earth begins to birth and bloom, because a subtle yet significant shift is happening to the position of the planet. Even as it moves farther in distance from the sun, the earth’s axis is gradually tilting the northern hemisphere toward the sun, resulting in longer daylight hours. Only on the Spring and Autumn Equinox does every place on earth spend exactly the same amount of time in both light and darkness – 12 hours each. After the Spring Equinox, the sun in the northern hemisphere continues to stretch into longer days until reaching peak with the longest daylight day on Summer Solstice. I’ll have to write more about the health benefits of sunlight as we move into a warmer season. It is likely you have spent a great deal of time over the fall and winter months reliant on artificial light. The artificial light fixtures and bulbs in your home and work place also impact your health and wellness, though for many, the effects are subtle or rarely attributed to these light sources.
The push for energy efficiency, while often founded in noble intention, can actually create other issues that might make the new technology actually not the wisest environmental or health choice. Such is the case with the newer energy efficient light bulbs or compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL bulbs). In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency clean up protocol consumers are supposed to follow in case of accidental breakage and for proper disposal once the light bulb is no longer working. It is the toxic gas mercury that is released when broken which poses the most talked about danger. Mercury is most strongly vaporized when the light is on, so if broken while illuminated, the initial exposure is greater than if an unlit bulb breaks. The rest of the mercury coats the lining of the glass tube, and due to variances in brands, etc. it will continue to vaporize, contaminating the air, for anywhere from about 10 days to as great as 85 days or more. Broken bulbs should be cleaned up and disposed of properly and quickly to limit exposure. It is also notable that as the bulb is used, the mercury oxidizes and oxidized mercury will not volatilize. This means that a new bulb is of greater environmental threat than a bulb reaching the end of its lifespan. Some experts argue that there is no need for real concern; they speculate the exposure is likely minimal in case of breakage and that use of these mercury containing bulbs actually reduces overall mercury exposure and environmental contamination because the decrease in electricity use lowers coal consumption – which is a significant source of environmental contamination from mercury.
Environmental Engineering Science published long awaited research on CFLs in 2011 bu Li,y. and L.Jin. This study measured a variety of mercury concentrations in bulbs, ranging from 0.1 to 3.6 mg – despite industry reports of a standard content of 0.5 mg of mercury. Dr. Magda Havas, PhD is an Associate Professor of Environmental & Resource Studies at Trent University. She teaches and does research on the biological effects of environmental contaminants. In her literature, she raises several concerns, with the first being that when comparing this to water quality standards which allow only 0.001 mg mercury per liter, a CFL at the 0.5 mg level contains 500 x the concentration of drinking water. That is significant. In addition, she reminds consumers that there is no official oversight on manufacture of CFL bulbs including mercury concentrations. The U.S. allows importation of compact florescent bulbs from countries like China with a proven history of ignoring global environmental concerns and standards as well as health and safety issues for their factory workers.
In addition to the health consequences of mercury exposure, discussion surrounds other factors that may play a role in negative health impacts of CFL use. Because these ill effects are showing up in a limited and sensitive population, often people who experience the adverse effects of CFL exposure are simply not believed. However, when physicians like Neurologist, Dr. Lawrence Newman, MD who is the director of the Headache Institute at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City attribute not only his own migraines but multiple neurological effects of CFL exposure to his patients, people start listening a little more closely. What are some of the proposed side effects? Here is a limited list: headaches, migraines, joint pain, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, mood disorders such as depression, ringing in the ears, shortness of breath, and even tooth pain, blood sugar spikes and more.
These bulbs emit a radio wave frequency that is biologically active and some scientist believe their impact could be dangerous. There is growing concern about what is called “dirty electricity” (a phenomena not well understood or widely accepted by all scientists or doctors) as to whether or not it is making people sick. The World Health Organization believes the evidence is suggestive enough that they have issued warnings to limit exposure, as have some European countries.
It is also known that CFL bulbs emit UV light and are not required to have a filter to shield UV exposure. This small amount of UV exposure can greatly affect people with skin sensitivities or known diseases (such as Lupus) or possibly medications that make their skin more sensitive to UV exposure. There have been reports of blistering and rashes. There is no research answering the question – can exposure to the UV in CFLs cause skin cancer? Experts suggest limiting both close contact and exposure, especially for children, until those questions can be answered.
The once mandated CFL may be going the way of the incandescent bulb and become a topic of history. Lightbulb manufacturing giant General Electric just announced that they will no longer be manufacturing CFL bulbs. They will only be offering LED. Big box retailer Ikea phased out all CFLs over a year ago. While there are obviously economic reasons behind the switch as well, it makes one wonder if the growing number of reported negative health impacts of CFL exposure are becoming more common.
The take home message is that no one really knows what the full effects might be, and experts suggest you limit your CFL exposure, especially if you are experiencing any symptoms that might be related. Be willing to talk to your healthcare provider about concerns related to exposure and prepare to start switching to LED!
Dr. Summer Beattie, ND is a graduate of Bastyzr University. She has over 8 years experience as a Naturopathic Doctor specializing in women’s health with an emphasis on environmental medicine. Having served two terms on the board of directors for the Washington Association of Naturopathic Physicians, she has also worked in the medical aesthetics field since 2008. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or