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, IALD
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