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CFL Lights

07/29/2010

Question:

I have read that CFL lights emit dirty electricity and can cause cancer. Can you give me any info on this and do you think they can safely be used in the home? Thank you.

Answer:

There may be some confusion about terminology here. Light bulbs of any kind do not emit electricity; they emit light, which is electromagnetic radiation of various wavelengths. Electricity, or the movement of electrons through a medium (for example a metal wire), powers those light bulbs. In the case of CFUs, the electricity excites the gases inside the bulb and photons of light are emitted. There are wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum that can cause cancer, for example ultraviolet light, gamma radiation, etc.

The light emitted from CFUs is in the visible spectrum, including some in the ultraviolet and blue wavelengths, but, to my knowledge, cannot disrupt the chemical bonds of big molecules (like genes and chromosomes). These kinds of disruptions would be necessary for CFUs to produce illnesses like cancers. It is possible that individuals with rare skin disorders that make them sensitive to light could have worsened symptoms. Also, very close proximity (less than about 8 inches) to the bulb for extended periods could result in exposures exceeding workplace recommendations for UV light skin and eye exposures. This would have to be an unlikely occurrence.

A separate issue is the contents of CFUs, which, as mentioned earlier, include gases. A small amount of mercury is also in the gases of CFUs and users should avoid breaking these bulbs and should take them to centers that can recycle them properly. You can find out where to take them by contacting someone in your local health department (city or county). Usually a county will have a solid waste authority (in central Ohio this is SWACO, or the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio). These folks should be set up to accept burned out bulbs and can dispose of them properly. The mercury in these bulbs is a concern, but we are exposed to a great deal more mercury through the burning of coal to create electricity.

Practicing energy conservation by reducing the amount of electricity we use (with CFUs, turning off unneeded lights, having the house warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter, etc.) will significantly reduce pollutants such as mercury, and also fine particulate matter (soot), and other primary pollutants. I think the bottom line is that these bulbs can be used safely in the home. Pay attention, handle them with care, and dispose of them properly.

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Response by:

J Mac Crawford, PhD, RN J Mac Crawford, PhD, RN
Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences
College of Public Health
The Ohio State University