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Negative Effects of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) on Light-Sensitive People

Lensa Welch has been writing online for over nine years. Her articles typically focus on the medical sciences.

CFL pic by AZAdam on Flicker

CFL pic by AZAdam on Flicker

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: More Efficient, But With Several Drawbacks

Compact fluorescent bulbs are a more efficient way to provide electrical light within homes and other buildings. These bulbs are one of the easiest ways to save money. According to GE, compact fluorescent bulbs, or CFLs for short, use 70% less energy than a traditional, incandescent bulb and last up to 10 times longer than a standard incandescent bulb.

As society pushes for improved efficiency, compact fluorescent bulbs need to be carefully examined. Although these bulbs are more efficient, there are many problems with them. Below, we'll consider the following:

  • Health Problems
  • Mercury Levels
  • Cleaning Up Broken Bulbs
  • Hazardous Waste Disposal

CFLs and Health Problems

These bulbs can impact people with the following health issues:

  1. Migraine
  2. Lupus
  3. Photosensitive Epilepsy
  4. Ménière's Disease

1. Migraine

The flickering of fluorescent bulbs is a known migraine trigger. Compact fluorescent bulbs have made great strides in reducing the flickering that is common in this class of light bulbs. Despite this, many individuals are finding that compact fluorescent bulbs cause migraine headaches. CFL bulb manufacturers have denied any link between the bulbs and increased headache problems. Currently, there is little research to support the link between migraine and CFL use; however, personal, anecdotal evidence demonstrates that many migraineurs can not tolerate the new lights.

Migraine is not just a headache. Migraine disease is a neurological condition that not only causes pain but can impact motor function, sensory function, vision, memory, and speech. The Migraine Action Committee in the UK has growing concerns about the effects of compact fluorescent light bulbs on migraine.

Individuals who have problems with fluorescent bulbs can try the following tips to lessen the impact of a CFL on migraine disease:

  1. Use the newest compact fluorescent bulbs available. Manufacturers have been developing bulbs that flicker less than the original issue bulbs.
  2. Sit as far from the bulbs as possible
  3. If flickering is interfering with TV or computer monitor use, try repositioning the light to see if the flickering effect on the screen lessens.
  4. Try eye glasses or contacts that block out UV radiation.
  5. Use halogen or LED lighting
  6. Try double walled bulbs or a light diffuser.

2. Lupus

Compact fluorescent bulbs can produce more ultraviolet light and have a different light spectrum than incandescent bulbs. This makes compact fluorescent bulbs problematic for people with Lupus or other light sensitive skin conditions. Individuals with light sensitivity should monitor the effect of compact fluorescent bulbs on their health. If problems arise, the following measure can be tried:

  1. Keep at least 1 foot between yourself and the compact fluorescent bulb.
  2. Try a light cover or diffuser over the light.
  3. Investigate the amount of ultraviolet light produced by different brands of CFLs.
  4. Use halogen or LED lighting.

3. Photosensitive Epilepsy

One of the forms of epilepsy is triggered by light. Standard fluorescents often cause seizures in these individuals. Researchers have found no connection between CFLs and epilepsy, however, certain individuals may find them problematic. These individuals should:

  1. Choose bulbs of the same brightness as their current bulbs.
  2. Consider halogens or LED bulbs.
  3. Replace burnt out, flickering bulbs immediately

4. Ménière's Disease

One of the symptoms of Ménière's is flicker vertigo. Flicker vertigo may arise from flicker rates in the range of 4-30Hz or 4 to 30 times per second. Symptoms range from vague and non-specific feelings of unease through to nausea, dizziness, migraines, unconsciousness, and even photosensitive epileptic seizures.

The flicker of CFLs is faster than the rate than typically induces flicker vertigo. The main problem with CFLs is that sometimes a CFL will have a faulty mechanism that will cause it to visibly flicker. If this happens, the bulb should be replaced immediately.

Can the UV Light Emissions From CFLs Cause Skin Cancer?

Ultra violet light is responsible for skin cancer. It can also be a problem for individuals with ultra violet sensitive conditions such as Lupus. One would think that staying inside would keep a person safe from this harmful radiation. This is not completely true.

Fluorescent lights put off UV light. While this exposure is much smaller than that of sunlight, it is important to keep it in mind. The current guideline limit in the UK is 30 J m-2 for the eye and skin, which is equivalent to a constant irradiance of 1 mW m-2 effective for 30,000 seconds or 8 hours, a normal working day. At close proximity (2 cm or ¾ inch), the exposure limit would be exceeded in less than 10 minutes by about 20% of the CFLs tested. About half of the CFLs exceeded the exposure limit at this distance after 30 minutes.

The good news is that if the distance is increased to about 8" only around 8% of the CFL bulbs exceed this limit. Also, encapsulated bulbs that have a globe of glass around the CFL itself emit less UV radiation than the traditional bulbs.

This CFL limit can be overcome with some planning. CFL developers need to keep the guidelines in mind when developing new CFL models. Also, government regulation would help ensure that the UV from CFLs is limited.

Suggested Precautions

Rather than eliminate CFLs entirely, people should take the following precautions:

  1. Do not use compact fluorescent bulbs for close up work or lighting.
  2. Purchase double walled CFLs that are encapsulated.

Further Reading on CFLs and Health

A puddle of Mercury (Hg)

A puddle of Mercury (Hg)

Mercury Levels

Compact fluorescent bulbs have been marketed as a green alternative to incandescent bulbs. Using 70% less energy has to be a good thing, right?

Mercury is an element that is found naturally. It is abbreviated as Hg on the periodic table. Mercury pollution is in the air, water, and other parts of our environment. Currently, coal burning power plants are one of the largest causes of mercury pollution. It is a chemical that is harmful to humans and other life forms.

Concerns about mercury have surfaced in many venues. In recent years you may have heard stories about mandated power plant mercury emission cuts, mercury removal from thermometers, concerns about mercury in vaccine preservatives, suggestions to limit certain types of fish in our diet due to mercury levels in the fish, and questions about silver dental fillings that contain mercury. Mercury is toxic to humans and can be potentially fatal.

Despite all of this, CFLs are still being touted as the best green light bulb solution. Some advocates for compact fluorescent bulbs argue that CFLs cut emissions from power plants and therefore reduce mercury in our environment. Even if that is true, CFLs are still introducing a toxic chemical into our homes.

How to Clean Up Broken CFL Bulbs

Step 1: Air Out the Room

  1. Have people and pets leave the room. Be careful not to walk through the broken bulb area.
  2. Open a window. Let the room air out for at least 15 minutes. Do not reenter the room until the 15 minutes are up.
  3. Shut off central air/heat as well as any fans that circulate air throughout the building

Step 2: Clean Hard Surfaces

  1. Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a sealed container such as a glass jar with metal lid or a sealed plastic bag.
  2. Use sticky tape to pick up remaining glass fragments and powder.
  3. Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the sealed container.
  4. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

Step 3: Clean Rugs and Upholstery

  1. Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a sealed container such as a glass jar with metal lid or a sealed plastic bag.
  2. Use sticky tape to pick up remaining glass fragments and powder.
  3. If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.
  4. Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.

Step 4: Clean (or Dispose of) Clothing, Bedding, and Other Fabric

  1. Dispose of any clothing or bedding that has come in direct contact with any of the broken pieces or mercury containing powder. Do not wash items. The mercury will contaminate your washing machine and/or sewage.
  2. Wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, such as the clothing you happened to be wearing when you cleaned up the broken light bulb.
  3. Wipe off shoes with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal.

Step 5: Safely Dispose of the Clean-Up Materials

Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states prohibit such trash disposal and require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

  1. Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or other protected area for the trash pickup.
  2. Wash your hands after disposing of clean-up materials.
  3. Dispose of broken bulb pieces in accordance with local laws.

Step 6: Clean the Carpet Carefully in the Future

  1. The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window prior to vacuuming.
  2. Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.

Hazardous Waste Disposal

Due to the mercury in fluorescent bulbs, they require special disposal methods. When these bulbs are sent to a traditional landfill, the bulbs often will break and will then emit mercury gas that is harmful to workers and to the environment. The health threat to workers is especially large at transfer stations where large quantities of light bulbs may be crushed in a single location. Due to the dangers associated with mercury "ten states and multiple local jurisdictions prohibit the disposal of mercury containing products, including CFLs and other mercury containing lamps, in solid waste."

When disposing compact fluorescent bulbs, look up the local regulations. Different states and municipalities have different rules about disposal. The EPA also has regulations about lamp disposal. While it is legal in some areas to dispose of CFLs in the standard trash, some states require CFLs to go through special CFL recycling programs or for individuals to dispose of CFLs at hazardous waste collection centers.

Local Disposal Laws

Local Recycling and Disposal Options

Try a CFL, but Do So Carefully

CFLs will save money and lower electricity usage. They also are replaced less frequently which can save trips to the store. As you can see, they have a number of challenges that incandescent bulbs do not have. Try a CFL. Try it in one room to ensure that you won't have any negative health effects. If the bulb breaks, make sure to clean it up properly. Also, check your local regulations to make sure that you won't break any laws while disposing of the bulb. Look for recycling programs online, through local stores, or through the light bulb manufacturers.

Make an informed choice. If CFLs concern you or if you have health problems do to them, switch to a LED or incandescent bulb, then, write your government representatives about your concerns as incandescent bulbs are becoming illegal in numerous countries in coming years.

What About You?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Lena Welch (author) from USA on January 27, 2015:

If you have problems with dizziness when you combine a monitor with the bulbs you should turn up your monitor brightness and don't use a dimmer on the bulb. You can use a web cam pointed at the monitor and actually see the refresh rate under the fluorescent bulb. I was having huge problems earlier this year and was so dizzy that I was absolutely green. I shut the lights off over my desk, used the cam to find the darkest I could have my monitor without flicker, and got incandescents for beside my desk. I am much happier now! So are my migraines.

TTGReviews on January 27, 2015:

I didn't know that CFLs emit UV light. Also, I often get migraines from CFLs. I wonder if there are other health side effects that we haven't related to it yet.

Goldleafs on September 04, 2014:

what a good hub it is with lot of information.

Oferteo from Poland on August 05, 2014:

This is great

Ashutosh Tiwari from Lucknow, India on October 11, 2013:

Nicely written and woven into a fine texture of words ! Hats off

CFL on June 13, 2013:

Optimistic exports are expected to be able to drive the production of lighting business, but it can not be ignored that the European Union and the United States since implement new lighting standards and norms since last year, export enterprises must close variation for the latest standards for production. The implementation of the new standards is both a challenge and an opportunity, on the trend of the world, traditional light sources will be phased out, energy-saving lamps and LED are more environmentally friendly and accord with sustainable development, the new product have more plastic both in the design and application will be become the market leader.

From 2012 onwards, the European Union banned all traditional light bulb wattage; Second, the U.S will disuse most incandescent lamps from January 2012 to January 2014 and replaced with compact fluorescent lamps, light emitting diodes and other energy lights; once again, by the end of March, South Korea raised safety standards of its straight tube which can be replaced, townhouses and ring type fluorescent lamp LED lamp

Lena Welch (author) from USA on September 19, 2012:

Ugh. What a mess! I would say that washing again would help if there is any mercury left on your clothes. It can't hurt. The mercury in the bulbs isn't huge, but avoiding as much of it as possible is a good idea.

e369 on September 19, 2012:

i just washed my clothes not knowing a bulb was in my panths pocket then i dried it after i saw the bulb broken in to small pieces do i re washes my clothes?

Lena Welch (author) from USA on June 30, 2012:

There are some new glasses that may help. She could try precision tinted lenses such as those done by irlen, fl-41 tint , or thereaspecs I was having problems at my previous workplace and was looking into glasses. Since I have left my eyes are happier. I still find myself in sunglasses on bad days.

david johns on June 30, 2012:

My wife gets terrible migraines and loses her vision temporarily. Never had migraines or loss of vision until we had one in our house. Cant even go to restraunts or malls etc where they have then installed!

Lena Welch (author) from USA on May 31, 2012:

That is a great point! Kitties are good at lamp breaking. They also lick themselves off. I wonder what the impact would be to them!

Cathleena Beams from Tennessee on May 31, 2012:

I don't use the bulbs with the mercury. Saving a few bucks on the bills just doesn't measure up to the risk since I have a kitty who could accidentally knock over a lamp and would enjoy chasing around the little silver bead. Great hub on the caution and care that needs to be taken when a bulb gets broken. Very well done!

Lena Welch (author) from USA on April 18, 2012:

Thanks! Also, thanks for stopping by. Good luck with your writing as you start out here!

lejonkung on April 18, 2012:

very well written hub!

Lena Welch (author) from USA on April 12, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by! I bet the mercury isn't the cause of problems. Is it great for you, as mentioned above the answer is no, but your exposure should be pretty small. I am betting that literally millions of people have been exposed to broken cfl bulbs without any second thoughts about it. So far there haven't been news reports of mercury poisoning wiping out stores where the bulbs are sold or trash dumps where in recycled ones end up.

I understand your concern though as I have wondered about it myself. That type of question was part of my reason for writing this. I looked at the EPA web site and here is their answer:

"What if I can't follow all the recommended steps? or I cleaned up a CFL but didn't do it properly?

Don't be alarmed; these steps are only precautions that reflect best practices for cleaning up a broken CFL. Keep in mind that CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury -- less than 1/100th of the amount in a mercury thermometer."

I would follow the precautions in the future, continue the good practices that it sounds like you for the most part followed, and try not to add more mercury to your body. If the numbness continues give your doctor a call. If he tells you anything interesting please share it with me. I love to learn.

I hope that helps out.

rcgeek1 on April 12, 2012:

Hello. I have a question;

One broke in my room; prior to reading this. I vaccumed the carpet, discarded my clothes that came into physical contact with it and set a window fan on to blow out the vapor as well as to shut off the house air circulation system. I vaccumed, though. Should this be an issue? Also, I am feeling a strange numb feeling in my hands and feet, which were bare while cleaning up. Is this an issue? Thanks.

Rob Led from Vancouver, British Columbia on March 12, 2012:

With LED coming into maturity, watch for these "Eco-mercury- bombs" to be banned in the very near future. Truth is it "would have been great" if they could have "re-captured" more than 4 % , now they are a stepping stone technology bridge until LED prices drop.

Abhijit Datir , Sometimes during operation the seal can crack, this releases "mercury vapor" into the immediate area and CFLs get hot enough to start fires!

Lena Welch (author) from USA on March 03, 2012:

As far as I know they do not emit mercury as the mercury is inside the sealed glass vacuum. It can only get out when the seal is broken such as when the glass breaks.

I do not know how much heat is produced. I don't know of any place that gives that information on lightbulbs.

Abhijit Datir on March 02, 2012:

Sir i have a query about the same CFL they emit mercury gas after switching on....and how much heat they create per watt?? please respond..