Health Concerns with CFLs
Our expert Randall Whitehead, IALD, separates fact from fiction regarding fluorescent’s skin irritation factor.
We have been hearing some rumors that CFLs are causing sunburn or skin irritations. Can you offer any insight to this?
The short answer is that the rumors are true-ish. According to the United Kingdom’s Health Protection Agency (HPA), being too close to some energy-saving light bulbs could cause skin reddening because of ultraviolet (UV) light emissions. The HPA was prompted to investigate the bulbs after being approached by groups representing people who suffer from light sensitivity issues. As a result of testing, which revealed the potentially higher levels of UV light, the HPA has issued guidelines against people working very close to non-encapsulated light bulbs (where the light coil is visible) for more than one hour a day. However, the agency stressed families should not remove energy-saving light bulbs from their homes, adding that there was no risk of skin cancer. HPA Chief Executive Justin McCracken states that “at the exposure levels we are talking about the worst effect that we believe there is as result of our investigation is that people could have some short-time reddening of their skin.” He adds: “We are advising people to avoid using the open light bulbs for prolonged close work until the problem is sorted out and to use encapsulated bulbs instead. In other situations where people are not likely to be very close to the bulbs for any length of time, all types of compact fluorescent light bulbs are safe to use.” Not all open (single envelope) fluorescent light bulbs have significant UV emissions but if people are in very close proximity to some of them, the exposure to bare skin is like being outside in direct sunlight. For example, HPA scientists found that when very close (less than 1 inch) to some open CFLs, the UV level can be equivalent to that experienced outside on a sunny day in the summer, so some precaution is warranted. When farther away (at least 1 foot), the UV level is less than being outside on a sunny day in winter, which is not a concern. The larger, long tube fluorescent lights commonly used in offices can also be used on ceilings without any special precautionary measures. Dr. John O’Hagan, group leader of the HPA’s Radiation Protection Division, said his research suggests the problem may be caused by issues such as phosphor, bends in the glass or the quality of the glass. Professor Harry Moseley, Consultant Clinical Scientist at the University of Dundee, says: “We are most concerned about risks to patients who have severe light-sensitive skin disorders, such as lupus, eczema, dermatitis or porphyria. The small levels of ultra-violet emitted by some low-energy light bulbs could be harmful to these patients.” Experts stress that healthy people are at no risk providing the HPA’s advice is followed. The bottom line is that exposure to UV radiation, from both electrical and natural light sources can cause problems for people suffering from some medical conditions. The HPA, the government and the lighting industry have met with patient groups to give advice on the use of CFLs and the availability of newer technologies for low-energy lighting, such as LEDs, which emit no UV. Make It a Bug Light Insects are not attracted to LED because what they are attracted to is UV light. So now you can have a bug light outside that isn’t too yellow.
Randall Whitehead lighting designer
Randall Whitehead, IALD

Randall Whitehead, IALD, is a professional lighting designer and author. His books include "Residential Lighting, A Practical Guide." Whitehead has worked on projects worldwide, appeared on the Discovery Channel, HGTV and CNN, and he is regular guest on Martha Stewart Living Radio. Visit his website for more information on books, upcoming seminars and the latest lighting trends.

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The rumors are true. I am one

The rumors are true. I am one of the individuals with skin sensitivity issues to these spiral bulbs. I absolutely hate them, an am outraged at the whole light bulb "phase out". Several of the restaurants that I go to have started using them, as well as the church I go to. My skin begins to feel irritated after about 20 minutes under CFL lighting. It feels as if my skin is being "ruffed up", not exactly pain, but an uncomfortable mild soreness. It also strains my eyes after a while, and then for many hours afterwards my eyes continue to feel irritated. Have you ever experienced "snow blindness"? Then you have some idea how my eyes are affected. I wish businesses and public places that use CFL bulbs would have more consideration to people that are more sensitive, like me. I can't imagine all this extra UV is good for everyone else either. Afterall, it is not a good idea to spend too many hours out in direct sunlight. It could lead to premature wrinkling and increase the risk of skin cancer. The government refuses to make the manufacturers put a warning label on their CFL bulbs, while the light bulb phase out is making hundreds of millions in profits for the big 3 manufacturers. The mainstream media for the most part has refused to cover the health issue because of environmental politics. CFLs have become a symbol for "saving energy", criticism of CFLs is seen as tantamount to an attack on environmentalism.

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