Are low-energy bulbs bad for you?

By John Naish Time of article published May 15, 2014

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London - How would you view a man who’s stockpiled a lifetime supply of old-fashioned light bulbs because he believes low-energy bulbs could lead to blindness?

You might well dismiss him as dotty. But the man in question, John Marshall, is no crank. In fact, he’s one of Britain’s most eminent eye experts, the professor of ophthalmology at the University College London Institute of Ophthalmology.

So concerned is he that he has boxes stacked with old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs at home.

“I bulk-bought incandescent light bulbs before the government made it illegal to import them,” he says. “I have enough to see me out.”

Nor is he alone in his concerns about modern light bulbs.

Another eminent British professor, John Hawk, an expert in skin disease, is warning they may cause sunburn-like damage, premature ageing and even skin cancer. He doesn’t have any low-energy bulbs in his house, explaining: “I have lots of old-style bulbs I bought in bulk when they were available.”

The EU ban on “traditional” bulbs was aimed at cutting fuel and carbon emissions. The low-energy bulbs – or compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), to give them their technical name – are said to use 80 percent less electricity and to last longer.

Old-fashioned incandescent bulbs work by electrically heating a filament inside a glass globe filled with inert gas, so that it emits light.

Instead of a glowing filament, low-energy bulbs have argon and mercury vapour within a spiral-shaped tube. When the gas gets heated, it produces ultraviolet light. This stimulates a fluorescent coating painted on the inside of the tube. As this coating absorbs energy, it emits light.

The concern is about some of the light rays emitted at high levels by these bulbs, says Professor Marshall.

Recent scientific evidence shows these specific rays are particularly damaging to human eyes and skin. Light is made up of a spectrum of different coloured rays of light, which have different wavelengths. As he explains: “Light is a form of radiation. The shorter the wavelength, the more energy it contains. The most damaging part of the spectrum is the short-wavelength light at the indigo/violet end of blue.

“Incandescent bulbs did not cause problems, but these low-energy lamps emit high peaks of blue and ultraviolet light at this wavelength.”

 

HOW THEY CAN ATTACK EYES

In the same way ultraviolet rays in sunlight can cause premature ageing in our skin if we get sunburnt, there is a similar situation in the eye, says Marshall.

“You shed skin every five days, but your retina is with you for life.”

The retina at the back of the eye is vital for sight – it’s made up of light-sensitive cells that trigger nerve impulses that pass via the optic nerve to the brain, where visual images are formed.

Sustained exposure to ultraviolet light wavelengths from CFLs increases the risk of two seriously debilitating eye conditions, macular degeneration and cataracts, the professor claims.

With macular degeneration, the macula, which is at the centre of the retina, becomes damaged with age. A cataract is a clouding of the lens inside the eye. These are two of the leading causes of blindness.

“If you are in a country with high levels of ultraviolet light, your eyes will age faster,” he says. “This is why the incidence of cataracts is earlier and greater nearer the equator, where sunlight is at its strongest, so there is more light across all spectrums. CFLs may have a similar effect.

“The exposure can also significantly increase your risk of macular degeneration. The biggest risk factor for this is age, as it commonly starts to affect people from 60 to 80. You will almost certainly exacerbate that risk with low-energy light bulbs.”

 

READING LAMP DANGER ZONES

But it’s not just your eyes that may be at risk from these light bulbs.

Professor John Hawk, the retired head of the photobiology unit at St John’s Institute of Dermatology, King’s College, London, warns: “There is good evidence that the CFLs that have been foisted upon us emit radiation sufficient to cause damage to the skin if used close by for long enough.”

He says the risk is particularly high if the bulb is a metre or less from your body, which is common as people use them in reading lamps.

“There is evidence that demonstrates that the lamps can not only cause damage to skin, but also short-term symptoms such as sun rash and prickly heat...

“As with any ultraviolet damage, these effects can add up over the years. The cumulative effect of this ultraviolet light causing burning, skin cell damage and ageing skin, is that it must to some small, but significant, extent increase the risk of skin cancer.”

Low-energy bulbs are also known to cause trouble to people who have lupus, an auto-immune disorder that typically affects the skin, joints and internal organs. Irritation caused by ultraviolet light worsens the rashes, joint pain and fatigue associated with the disease.

According to the Lupus Foundation of America, up to two-thirds of people with the condition are sensitive to CFLs.

 

THE LINK TO MIGRAINE

“Migraines and epilepsy are also problems,” says Hawk. “I have seen 30 skin patients in my clinic who have been experiencing these problems linked to the bulbs.”

This may be because low-energy bulbs can flicker imperceptibly (incandescent bulbs flicker only when they are about to break).

A 2013 study in the journal Neurology found that flickering lights were likely to trigger migraines in some sufferers. Flickering lights are also a trigger for epileptic fits.

Eleanor Levin, 44, a teacher, blames low-energy bulbs for her headaches. She says she can’t be in the same room as one as it will trigger attacks of nausea, confusion and migraine. She noticed the problem three years ago, when she began to suffer headaches in the office where she worked. “In the end, it made me so ill I had to give up that job,” she says.

Levin has seen an array of doctors and neurologists.

“Some neurologists have told me they believe the problem is caused by light flickering and is related to migraines,” she says. “I have old-fashioned incandescent lights at home and don’t get headaches – that’s why I now teach students at home for a living. I’m also fine with halogen bulbs.”

She adds: “The EU accepts there can be skin-damage problems related to low-energy light bulbs, but not headaches. I suspect there are a lot of people who suffer milder problems with CFL bulb-related headaches, but who have not made the link with the cause.”

It’s also previously been reported that low-energy bulbs contain small amounts of mercury, raising concerns that if the glass is broken, this toxic substance could be released into the air or landfill.

While the amounts are relatively small, if a low-energy bulb does break, householders are advised to evacuate the room and leave it to ventilate for 15 minutes.

You’re advised to wear gloves while wiping the area with a damp cloth and picking up the fragments – these should be placed in a plastic bag, then sealed, and placed in special recycling banks.

 

RISK OF FAULTY BULBS

Another potential concern is that low-energy bulbs vary considerably in the amount of dangerous spectrum ultraviolet light they emit, according to research at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, by Professor Harry Moseley, its head of photo-biology. “Our testing has found that in a batch of 10 CFLs from randomly selected makers, one may be significantly worse than the rest, because, for example, it has a fault in its light-shielding.”

Moseley says the “single-envelope” bulbs – the low-energy bulbs in which the coiled parts are visible – tend to emit the highest levels of ultraviolet light.

He believes those with a “double” envelope – a pearly dome like an old- fashioned light bulb covers the coiled parts – tend to block out UV light “much better”.

Anne Vick, the communications director of Lighting Europe, the industry association representing leading lighting manufacturers, maintains “there is no risk from ultraviolet light exposure emitted by CFLs as their UVA and UVB rays are well within the limits that guarantee consumer protection”.

She adds: “European scientific experts have not found any health impact from UV rays emitted by energy-saving bulbs in normal conditions.

“For workers exposed to high levels of light and for people affected by extreme light sensitivity, experts recommended using double-envelope lamps.

“CFLs comply with all relevant consumer protection legislation. All lamps are thoroughly tested in order to ensure safe applications for all consumers.”

An EU spokesperson said that “based on scientific evidence, an EU scientific committee in 2008 and the UK’s Health Protection Agency came to the conclusion that in normal use compact fluorescent lamps do not pose risks to the general public”. – Daily Mail

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