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Dark future: Compact fluorescent light bulbs pose numerous health risks

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Because of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), traditional "Edison-style" incandescent bulbs are being phased out. The law technically states that light bulbs for home use must use less energy, which amounts to a ban on production. The timetable on the phase-out is as follows: 100-watt bulbs were no longer produced or purchased by retailers after January 1, 2012. Seventy-five-watt bulbs were no longer produced or purchased by retailers after January 1, 2013. Sixty-watt and 40-watt bulbs will meet their demise at the beginning of 2014.

Isn't it a good idea to use less energy? Well, maybe not -- at least, not by switching away from incandescent bulbs. Traditional incandescent bulbs mimic natural sunlight and are relatively safe to use and dispose of. Compact fluorescent light bulbs (commonly called CFLs), the usual replacement for phased-out incandescent bulbs -- as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are only suitable for certain uses and are much more expensive than CFLs or incandescents -- contain mercury, a hazardous and potent neurotoxin. Cleaning up a broken CFL bulb requires much more than a vacuum. According to the EPA, broken CFL bulb cleanup is a multi-step process -- and vacuuming is actually not recommended.

When a CFL bulb breaks, everyone must leave the room. Windows must be opened so that the room can air out for up to ten minutes. HVAC systems must be shut off to reduce the spread of the toxic mercury vapor through the house. Sticky tape and other materials used to clean up the mercury powder and glass fragments must be placed in a plastic bag or a glass jar for disposal, and nothing used in the cleanup can ever be used again. Detailed instructions from the EPA are available here.

What about CFLs that don't break, but merely burn out? Well, the bulbs must be disposed of properly, which includes recycling the mercury. The problem is that not every trash collector provides for proper CFL bulb disposal methods, so CFL-related mercury contamination of the environment is on the rise and predicted to continue increasing. According to the July 2013 issue of Waste Management and Research, industry only recycles CFLs at a rate of 29%, and consumers recycle only 2% of CFLs, which means that all the rest of the mercury is going into landfills, where it can contaminate air and water.

The altered UV profile of CFLs is also potentially harmful to humans sitting under these bulbs all day at work, school, or home. According to researchers at SUNY Stony Brook, exposure to light from CFL bulbs causes healthy fibroblasts and keratinocytes (human skin tissue) to become sick. What happens is that exposure to light from CFLs causes human skin cells to decrease their growth rate, increase their production of reactive oxygen species, and decrease their ability to contract collagen. Incandescent light of the same intensity caused none of these deleterious effects on skin.

Researchers in Berlin share similar findings in the November 2013 issue of Photochemical and Photobiological Sciences. According to these scientists, exposure to light from CFLs causes all-trans retinoic acid -- a compound vital to skin homeostasis -- to change into 13-cis-isomer, which is far less biologically active. Thus exposure to light from CFL bulbs impairs skin's ability to maintain its natural healthy state.

Finally, the color of light from CFL bulbs -- be it the blue of the 5,000- to 6,500-Kelvin range or the sickly off-white of the 3,500- to 4,100-Kelvin range -- is simply not the light for which human eyes have been optimized over millennia of evolution. German researchers writing in the journal Ergonomics have observed that color discrimination (measured by the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Test) as well as proofreading performance is impaired under lighting from CFL bulbs. Although the test participants did not report physical discomfort, the CFL bulbs appear to have impaired their performance on light-sensitive tasks.

So, if it's worth it to increase exposure to neurotoxic mercury, increase environmental buildup of mercury, increase skin disorders, and impair visual abilities, in order to reduce energy expenditures by ordinary citizens, then CFL bulbs are a great idea. If not, perhaps Congress can think of another way to reduce energy expenditures -- like taxing heating and air conditioning expenses for residences greater than 5,000 square feet.

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