You may have heard stories or rumors about potential hazards of using Compact Fluorescent Lamps, or CFLs, in your home. Millions of these bulbs are being bought and installed every year, and the pace is increasing as standard incandescent light bulbs are being phased out. What is the real story? Is there any truth to these rumors?
Here are three of the most prevalent rumors, with the facts behind them. There's some truth to each.
CFL Light Bulbs Contain Mercury
This is true. All fluorescent lamps contain mercury. It's part of how they're made, and it's part of what makes them work. Every fluorescent tube you see, whether it's in the grocery store, your office, your garage or your living room, has some mercury in it.
That said, there are two things to bear in mind when changing these bulbs, and one important thing to remember if one of them breaks:
There is very little mercury in a single fluorescent tube. And, the amount of mercury is a function of the size of the tube. That means that there is only a tiny amount of mercury in one of the very small tubes found in a Compact Fluorescent Lamp.
That doesn't mean that it isn't there. It is, and you need to be aware of it. But if you accidentally break a CFL, you're not going to immediately poison anyone in your household, or contaminate your home to the point that it will need to be cleaned by professionals, if you do the cleanup carefully.
Why? Primarily because the total amount of mercury in one hundred household-size Compact Fluorescent Lamps is less than the amount of mercury in one of the mercury-bulb thermometers that we've been sticking in our mouths for years.
All fluorescent tubes, including CFLs, do need to be properly disposed of. They should not be thrown in the trash or, worse yet, put out with the recycling. And you do need to clean up a spill safely. So what should you do?
Ask your garbage collector what you should do with the old bulb or the remains of a broken one, or contact your county waste management authority. Either of them may know of a drop-off facility for hazardous material that's convenient for you.
You can also check with the stores that sell a lot of these light bulbs. Many of the large home improvement centers will let you drop used CFL bulbs off at their stores. They've already set up a means to safely deal with the spent lamps. Just make sure, if you have a broken one, that they're prepared to accept that, too.
CFLs Can Cause MigrainesSome people think so. They are sensitive to the subtle flickering that electric lights emit. That flicker is more pronounced, or evident, when the light is a fluorescent tube than it is with other types of lights. The manufacturers are aware of this and are working to reduce the flickering. It is unlikely that they will be able to eliminate it as long as the standard power used with lights is alternating current, because the visible flicker is produced by the alternating of the current. If you're sensitive to this effect, or someone you live or work with is, there are things you can do to reduce the effect.
Try changing to different, and newer, fluorescent light bulbs, to see if the improved designs have solved the problem.
Change to a different type of light bulb. Standard incandescent light bulbs may have disappeared but their siblings, halogen lamps, are becoming more common and less expensive every day. So are Light Emitting Diode, or LED, light bulbs. Neither halogen nor LED light bulbs have been reported to cause migraines.
If you find that you more often get migraines or other headaches at work than at home, and you notice that almost all of the light in your workplace comes from fluorescent fixtures, try moving your work space to a location closer to a window so that you can receive more natural light, or ask the management if they can change some of the lighting to be non-fluorescent.
At home you can increase the amount of natural light that enters your rooms. You can install incandescent, halogen and LED bulbs instead of CFLs. You can install only those fluorescent light bulbs and tubes that are shielded.
CFLs Can Cause Skin Cancer
Possibly. Exposure to ultraviolet, or UV, radiation has been linked to skin cancer, and fluorescent lamps emit more energy in the UV part of the spectrum than other types of light bulbs do. And yes, that means that sitting under, or near, any fluorescent light may expose you to more UV radiation than spending the same amount of time in other forms of artificial light will.
That is, this will happen if you are exposed to light from unshielded CFLs. What's the alternative?
If you are using the CFLs which have the bent tubing out in the open, where you can see and touch it, only install these in lamps and other fixtures where you can't see the bulb.
In those where you can see the bulb, such as your desk lamp or reading lamp or the recessed lights in your kitchen, either install other types of light bulbs or use the CFLs that have a translucent cover over the tube. That covering is almost always an effective shield, or filter, for ultraviolet radiation.
Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) may be more efficient than other types of bulbs, considering initial price and cost of the power over their lifetimes, but you may also want to consider possible hazards when making your choice of bulbs to buy.
"The photosensitizing potential of compact fluorescent vs incandescent light bulbs." Photochemistry and Photobiology, 84(5) September-October 2008.
"A preliminary investigation into the effect of exposure of photosensitive individuals to light from compact fluorescent lamps." The British Journal of Dermatology, 160(3):659-64, March 2009.
"The locus of flicker adaptation in the migraine visual system: a dichoptic study." Cephalgalia: An International Journal of Headache, 33(1):5-19, January 2013.
"Can Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs Damage Skin?" Scientific AmericanTM, July 25, 2012.
"Could Compact Fluorescent Bulbs Pose Skin Cancer Risk?" U. S. News Health News, August 3, 2012.
"CFL Bulbs Have One Hitch: Toxic Mercury." National Public Radio, February 15, 2007.