Are you concerned about the safety of CFL and LED light bulbs? Wondering which choice is the best for your home or office? Learn how to find safe light bulbs!
When the US government decided to phase out incandescent bulbs, it gave little attention to the health impact of contemporary lighting alternatives. While energy efficiency is a valid concern, we can’t afford to disregard health when it comes to our lighting choices. The following overview is designed as a guide for the next time you find yourself wandering aimlessly in your store’s light bulb aisle.
Light Bulb Basics
Contemporary incandescent bulbs are not much different from the bulbs offered by Thomas Edison in 1878. The bulb consists of a tungsten wire filament wrapped in a tight coil. Electricity passes through the coil, heating the filament to a very high temperature (up to 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit). The globe of the bulb contains an inert gas to prevent the heated metal from combining with oxygen that would cause the filament to burn out. Incandescent bulbs are the “simplest” of the options, but most of their energy goes toward producing heat rather than light, which makes them less desirable in terms of energy efficiency.
It’s important to note that incandescent bulbs emit a broad spectrum of light with concentrations in the yellow-orange range, while typical fluorescent bulbs emit more in the blue-violet spectrum. This can have far-reaching effects on our sleep, as we’ll see later.
(Halogen lamps are a more complicated version of the incandescent bulb. A small amount of iodine or bromine [a halogen] is added to prevent filament evaporation, and the bulb is supplied with electric current by feed-through terminals or wires embedded in the glass. )
LED or Light-Emitting Diode bulbs rely on a diode that serves as a semiconductor to control the direction of the electricity flow. Electrons recombine with electron holes, releasing energy in the form of photons. The color of the light is determined by the make-up of the semiconductor. LEDs are relatively straightforward and free of hazardous vapors.
CFL or Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs rely on an electric current driven through a tube containing mercury vapor. As B. Blake Levitt explains in her book Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer’s Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves:
Fluorescent fixtures contain a phosphor-coated glass tube that glows when electric current is passed through it. Electrodes at each end of the tube are heated by current and emit free electrons. The electrons strike atoms of mercury vapor contained in the tube and this causes the atoms to emit ultraviolet light, which in turn energizes the phosphor atoms into emitting white light.
CFL bulbs use significantly less energy than incandescent bulbs and are more affordable than LED bulbs, making them the #1 choice for many homeowners and business owners.
Health Effects of Light Bulbs
There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the health implications of the various lighting options.
While some CFL bulbs are double-encased and offer full-spectrum lighting, most compact fluorescent bulbs are burdensome in terms of health. The mercury inside the bulb emits ultraviolet (UV) radiation when electrically excited. While tube fluorescent bulbs often have diffusers to filter the UV, CFL bulbs do not. This increased UV exposure has been linked to the increasing incidence of skin disorders and skin cancers. According to the study The Effects of UV Emission From Compact Fluorescent Light Exposure on Human Dermal Fibroblasts and Keratinocytes In Vitro, CFLs negatively impact healthy skin cells.
Cells exposed to CFLs exhibited a decrease in the proliferation rate, a significant increase in the production of reactive oxygen species, and a decrease in their ability to contract collagen.
What’s more, CFL bulbs generate radio frequency radiation, as suggested by leading EMF expert Dr. Magda Havas. In her paper Health Concerns associated with Energy Efficient Lighting and their Electromagnetic Emissions, Dr. Havas explains the health hazards associated with the radio frequency band.
The energy efficient compact fluorescent lights that are commercially available generate radio frequency radiation and ultraviolet radiation, they contain mercury—a known neurotoxin, and they are making some people ill. Instead of promoting these light bulbs governments around the world should be insisting that manufacturers produce light bulbs that are electromagnetically clean and contain no toxic chemicals.
Dr. Havas notes that a survey of electrically-sensitive individuals showed a high percentage of headaches for those exposed to tube and compact fluorescent bulbs.
Another issue with CFL bulbs is dirty electricity. Dirty electricity is defined as harmonics of a fundamental frequency, which is 60 Hz in the case of these bulbs. These harmonics ride on top of the 60 Hz base frequency and cause “noise” which has been linked with health issues, as noted by Dr. Havas:
We have conducted studies with diabetics and people who have multiple sclerosis and found that when the dirty electricity in their home is reduced their symptoms diminish. Both type 1 and type 2 diabetics have lower blood sugar and type 1 diabetics require less insulin when they are in an electromagnetically clean environment. People with MS have fewer tremors, improved balance, less fatigue, and several have been able to walk unassisted after the dirty electricity in their home was reduced.
Dr. Havas offers a graphic showing the difference between an incandescent bulb and a CFL bulb. The CFL bulb raised the readings to 298 GS units, which is a high reading.
(See the graphics and full paper here.)
** Note: If you must have CFL bulbs, choose the encapsulated double envelope versions rather than the open curly-wurly versions.
***In addition to the issues noted above, broken CFL bulbs create a serious health hazard because of the mercury. See the EPA’s Cleaning up a Broken CFL.
Some versions of LED are safer than others. Choose high-quality, high-efficiency LED bulbs that don’t use a transformer.
The website EarthLED carries a wide range of LED bulbs. Find them here.
Good old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs may be the best option for artificial lighting. Take advantage of their availability and stock up while you can.
There is good news too. MIT has come up with an energy efficient version of the incandescent bulb. See “A Nanophotonic Comeback for Incandescent Bulbs? Researchers Combine the Warm Look of traditional Light Bulbs with 21st-Century Energy Efficiency.”
Best: Natural light
The optimal choice for your health is to get as much natural light as possible. Spend time outdoors, make sure your desk is near a window, and open all shades and curtains during the day. (See my previous post on the Health Benefits of Natural Light.)
If possible, go to bed early and wake up at daybreak. Get your body back in tune with the Earth’s clock. It not only benefits your health but also decreases your dependence on artificial lighting—which in turn uses less energy.
One light bulb company, Lighting Science, now has warning labels on its products, alerting consumers to the dangers of artificial light and directing them to a website where they can learn about blue light and its impact on sleep and melatonin production.
We have incandescent bulbs throughout our home. It was one of the first changes we made after an electromagnetic radiation inspection. (See more in my previous post From Wireless to Wired – Our Family’s Journey.)
We didn’t rush to replace the ones that were in the garage or less occupied areas, but focused on sleeping and living areas. I avoid overhead lights, preferring lamps on side tables or night stands. Most of all, I try to go to bed early and use orange-tinted glasses when reading before bed. (Find them here.) The glasses offer an affordable way to filter the blue light that suppresses melatonin. I often read on my iPad (in airplane mode with WiFi and Bluetooth turned off) and fall asleep quickly.
I also purchased a blue light filtering LED bulb for nighttime use from Lighting Science for two of our bedrooms, but didn’t notice a difference compared with the incandescent bulbs. I prefer the orange glasses for cost and simplicity.
As with virtually any buying decision, education is critical—especially when it comes to technology and artificial lighting. Keeping our indoor lighting to a minimum, regardless of light bulb type, can help improve and maintain health.