Health Dangers of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Compact fluorescent light bulbs may save energy but are they also endangering our health??

Credit: Flickr / ephemeralstorm

Sufferers of autoimmune diseases and skin conditions may be at risk of CFLs

In the next year, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) will completely replace incandescent light bulbs

While CFLs are supposed to be more energy efficient, there are concerns they could put the health of some people at risk.

According to Health Canada, those who suffer from certain autoimmune diseases and skin conditions may be affected by the ultraviolet radiation produced by these new bulbs.

Health Dangers of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Lupus is one such condition, as an attack can be triggered by ultraviolet light. “We’re actually talking about hundreds of thousands of people who may be affected by this,” says Dr. Jan McCaffrey, a Vancouver family physician and lupus patient.

However, Dr. Jan Dutz, a UBC dermatologist and lupus specialist, says the risk from CFLs is minimal. Still, he warns that “at close-range quarters, [if you] are using it as a study lamp with the exposure at the back of your hand or on the face, in very rare cases you may get enough UV light to elicit a reaction.”

Dr. Dutz says double-envelope shielded CFLs that emit much less UV light may help. “It would take about 1.5 years to get to that equivalent of 15 minutes in terms of exposure at a close range.”

That’s why doctors and Health Canada recommend shielded bulbs for people with UV sensitivity. Shielded light bulbs are widely sold at larger hardware stores, but read the packaging carefully, as products vary depending on the manufacturer.

It’s important for everyone, even those without UV sensitivity, to be aware of CFL dangers. Health Canada recommends that when unshielded CFLs are used daily at 30 centimetres (which is at close range), exposure should be limited to no longer than three consecutive hours.

What to Do if a CFL Breaks

Another safety issue with CFLs is safe disposal and what to do if a CFL bulb breaks. CFLs contain mercury, which can transform into methylmercury, a neurotoxin. When a CFL breaks:

  • Don’t use a broom or vacuum cleaner or you’ll spread the mercury around and contaminate these items.

  • Turn off your forced-air heating or air-conditioning system.

  • Put on disposable rubber gloves before handling the bulb.

  • On a hard surface, scoop up the pieces with cardboard or a stiff piece of paper and wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel.

  • On a rug or soft surface, use sticky tape to pick up the pieces.

  • Put all pieces into sealed plastic bags and take to a recycling location.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises airing out the room for several hours. When a CFL bulb breaks, 14 per cent of the mercury vapour is immediately released into the air.

Finally, keep spent bulbs with new ones, so when it comes time to buy more, you can return the old ones to the retailer for recycling. Don’t throw them into the garbage — if we all did that, we would create an environmental disaster.

Your Health with Dr. Rhonda Low airs weekdays during CTV News at Five and CTV News at Six.

Originally published in TV Week. For daily updates, subscribe to the free TV Week e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.