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  • Writer's pictureby Eve Lees

Caution with CFL bulbs

Originally published in Personal Health Newsletter, July 2011 and The White Rock Sun, May 2011

Curly, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL’s) are marketed as being long-lasting, cost-effective and environmentally friendly. Some users find an inconsistency among manufacturers in how long the bulbs actually last (not very long, for some brands). But a bigger concern is; are they really friendly to the environment and our health?

All CFL’s contain mercury and must be disposed of at designated recycling centres. In a society where people don’t pick up after their dogs, do we really think everyone will dispose of CFL’s properly? And what about remote communities where there are no CFL recycling drop-offs? (Some of these communities don’t even have recycling programs for their glass and plastics.) Mercury-poisoned soil is a possibility if these bulbs pollute our landfill sites. And soon, CFL’s may be the predominant light bulb available in British Columbia.

In addition, there’s much more than just an environmental concern. The health impact of CFL’s on the human body is also questioned by many, although the jury is still out. It’s called electromagnetic hypersensitivity – or getting sick from the electronic devices we use (cell phones, computers, microwave towers, etc.) and the ‘energy’ they emit. Scientists are still debating if people can suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. They say there is no proof. But many people feel their health problems are directly linked to these energy sources.

In 2007, the World Health Organization cautioned that high levels of exposure to electric and magnetic fields in frequencies of up to 100 kilohertz could affect the nervous system, resulting in acute health effects. On Global TV's program 16:9, a microsurge metre, which measures electric energy, reads CFL’s as far above these readings. Incandescent bulbs measured well below 50, which is a recommended safe level on most micorsurge meters.

The report on Global TV’s program 16:9 questioned if the ultraviolet radiation emitted from these bulbs can damage our skin. Officials at Health Canada told 16:9, “There may be skin sensitivity issues, especially in people with certain skin diseases,” but at the time of their originally-aired report, Health Canada wouldn’t provide the 16:9 reporters with their findings (watch a more recent 16:9 report for update) .

In Britain, government health researchers and advocacy groups are being cautious. They feel there should be proper standards and warnings with this type of lighting. In London, England, the government has put warnings on CFL “curly bulbs” after they found one in five brands of CFL bulbs emit unusual levels of UV light.

Until more is known, British researchers advise avoiding close proximity with CFL’s for more than one hour. This especially applies to children. They suggest to use fewer of these bulbs in your home. If you suffer from headaches or other health complaints – and there is no known reason – experiment with removing the CFL or other fluorescent sources in your home. See if your health improves. Health Canada claims CFL’s are safe. But if you are concerned, for a healthier option, purchase CFL’s which have the curly part in a protective UV-filtering cover. These are available in Canada. Or use LED or Halogen lighting.

Soon regular incandescent bulbs will no longer be available in Canada. They drain too much energy, says the government. Which means CFL’s may be widely used in malls, stores, public buildings and private homes. Depending on which "camp" you are in, this news will be good or bad. But definitely not comforting to those who worry about how these bulbs are discarded. Shouldn’t we look into other less “energy-draining” light sources, before we elect to use a questionable source? A source that will drain tons of energy anyway, just in trying to educate the public on how to dispose of them.

Educate yourself about cleaning up the mercury, should you break a CFL bulb. And do not throw used bulbs in your trash: Find where to recycle them. (Most Home Depot and Rona stores across North America will accept your used CFL bulbs. Check major recycling centres in your city as well.)

For Health Canada’s stand on CFL’s, visit:

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