There’s a killer in your house.
This year marks the final phase out of incandescent light bulbs in the EU, and their total replacement by what’s termed compact fluorescent lamps or CFLs. The reasons given for this move are that CFLs are more environmentally friendly, because they reduce CO2 emissions, and more energy-efficient. According to EU figures, these energy-saving bulbs can easily save you €50 a year, even including the price of the bulbs, and can cut a household’s total electricity consumption by 10-15%. CFLs last at least 6-10 years, compared to 1-2 years for conventional bulbs and use as little as one-fifth of the electricity used by conventional incandescent light bulbs. When you think there are estimated to be 4 billion light bulbs in the EU, the savings are considerable.
It all sounds great, doesn’t it?
There are some downsides though. They are of course more expensive than incandescents but the most noticeable is that when turned on, they can take 10-15 minutes to reach their full lighting capacity and even then, the claimed brightness on the packaging is exaggerated, as the EU has been forced to admit. Some independent testing has shown that an 11W CFL produced just over half of the illumination of a supposedly equivalent 60W bulb and that the actual claimed brightness varies widely from manufacturer to manufacturer.
They also flicker and when there’s a number of them in a house, a lot of people complain of a slight background humming noise. I certainly hear that hum but then again, I’m blessed with acute hearing.
There are claims by members of several health organisations of other problems. Member feedback to the Migraine Action Association, suggests that the light from CFLs seems to trigger migraine attacks in some people. The Eczema Society has had reports from sufferers which suggests the light can exacerbate some skin problems, a claim supported by some skin care specialists, who think the excess UV emitted by the CFLs is too harsh for the skin. At the moment, it appears to just be feedback from people suffering these ailments and in the absence of any research in these areas, it’ll remain just that. I find it disturbing that so much work has gone into studying the benefits of these lights but nothing much about looking into these complaints seriously.
I suppose if these were the only problems with these lights, one could adapt to their usage but unfortunately, the issues are a bit more serious.
Research done by the Alab Laboratory in Berlin, detected several known carcinogenic chemicals and toxins being emitted when CFLs were switched on, including phenol, naphthalene and styrene. Their report advised that CFLs should not be left switched on for extended periods and their location should be as far as possible from a person’s head, to reduce the chance of inhaling the toxins. In some similar research, done for the Federation of German Engineers, the scientists came back with the recommendation that CFLs should not be used in an unventilated environment and again, that they should be placed as far away from the head as possible. They described the carcinogens as a kind of electrical smog produced around these lights.
There’s another problem brought about because the bluer light emitted by CFLs, more closely matches sunlight than the yellowish light from incandescents. Some research was done over a decade ago, to determine why the incidence of breast cancer was much higher in women who worked night shifts. The answer was the effect light could have on the body’s production, by the brain’s pineal gland, of a hormone called melatonin, which is thought to protect against some types of breast and prostate cancers. The highest concentrations of melatonin are produced by the body at night but light can disrupt this natural process. Night workers, of course, sleep in the day, when there’s more ambient light around.
A piece of research, done at Haifa University by a professor of biology called Abraham Haim and published in the science journal Chronobiology International, found breast cancer rates were up to 22 per cent higher in women who slept with a light on, as compared to those who slept in total darkness. He’s of the opinion that CFLs could result in an even more increased risk of breast cancer if used late at night. Make of it what you will, but it’s of note that Professor Haim has removed every CFL from his house.
All these potential problems are troubling but the real and undoubted danger to your health is when a CFL breaks, either through an accidental impact or because of something like an electrical overload. They contain mercury, which even in small quantities, is a very dangerous chemical if not handled with due care.
A study done for Germany’s Federal Environment Agency by the Fraunhofer Wilhelm Klauditz Institute measured what happened when a CFL broke and released its mercury payload into the air. The did various scenarios but one of the worst case ones was breaking two CFLs, one of which contained 2 and the other 5 milligrams of mercury. The found that the resultant air burst produced 7 micrograms of mercury per cubic metre of air. When you consider that the official Health and Safety limit is set at 0.35 micrograms of mercury per cubic metre of air, you can see how dangerous an event a breakage is. What’s even more disturbing, is that high levels of mercury were still being recorded at floor level over five hours after the breakages.
The importance of the floor level bit is that if one breaks in a bedroom when people are asleep, with their head therefore nearer the floor, they’ll be getting hours of heavy exposure to something that can seriously harm them. This scenario is the greatest domestic danger posed by CFLs. After a breakage, elemental mercury evaporation soon begins and then you’re dealing with a cloud of mercury vapour, which is invisible, odorless and toxic.
Take a look at what the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has to say about what to do in the event of a CFL being broke.
The only time I’ve seen such heavy and at the same time lame advice, was reading decontamination instructions about how to deal with a persistent chemical warfare attack or the fallout from a dirty bomb. Do you seriously want something like that in your house, especially if you’ve got a few rugrats tearing around in it? If so, I’d advise you to buy each of them a cute little hazmat suit and a respirator.
Given that there will be soon be 4 billion CFLs installed in the EU, breakages for one reason or another, will be inevitable, as will be the increased incidence of mercury poisoning.
What do you do with a CFL when it eventually stops working? The official advice is not to throw it out in household rubbish but bring it to an officially approved disposal facility. Where are these disposal facilities? There are none in my area and a few phone calls to my local waste disposal services, ended up with my questions alarming them. They’re simply not just ignorant of the problem coming at them but totally unprepared for it, as are consumers.
People are not aware of the danger posed by CFL breakages nor the eventual effect on the environment of throwing them out mixed in with other household rubbish. Make no mistake, these bulbs will end up in household rubbish. What will happen then is they will be broken when the rubbish is compressed in the collection truck, exposing the sanitation workers to dangerous levels of mercury every time. The contaminated rubbish will then be tipped into landfill sites, which will definitely shatter any remaining unbroken ones. At this point, the water and land has been irreparably contaminated. The water contamination, means it can now enter the start of the food chain and gradually work its way up it, causing congenital abnormalities in all species, including us. Calling it an eco-disaster doesn’t even begin to cover it.
To give you an idea of how severe mercury contamination can be, the mercury from one CFL is enough to contaminate 30,000 litres of water, way beyond the approved safety standard and millions of these bulbs are going to end up in landfill sites.
I visited a friend’s house one evening last week and remarked that the interior lighting seemed dull and I could also hear a very faint ringing sound. It’s the lights he explained, he’d replaced every bulb in the house with CFLs and they weren’t very good either. I thought it might have the makings of an interesting article, so I began to do some research on CFLs, as a prelude to writing it.
Quite frankly, within an hour of googling, I was appalled at the number of potential and real health issues surrounding these lights, never mind the ecological time bomb their careless disposal is almost certainly going to create. The issues are being identified by reputable scientific research institutes, not irresponsible scare mongers and they’re being ignored. The rush to legislate these bulbs down consumer’s throats, in order to save the planet, without any pause to bottom out both the health and disposal issues, will end up in people being seriously harmed, if not killed by the things.
The one thing I know for certain about CFLs is, I won’t be letting a single one of them into my home.