Health Risks from Fluorescent Lightbulbs
Uncle Sam’s Not-So-Bright Solution
Soon the switch from inefficient incandescent bulbs to power-saving ones like CFLs will be complete, and America will be conserving countless kilowatts of power. So what if a little radiation and mercury are part of the bargain?
By Bryan Smith, Photographs by Claire Benoist, Posted Date: May 2, 2013
“IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE,” MIRIAM RAFAILOVICH, PH.D., is saying, perhaps sensing my distress after she’d peppered me with rapid-fire tech talk at her lab at Long Island’s Stony Brook University. “Here, look. You can see it.”
She holds up one of those spirally CFLs—compact fluorescent lights, the bulbs that have been crowding out incandescents on store shelves. “There,” says the materials engineering researcher. “And there. And, oh my, look at that. Wow.”
Sure enough, it doesn’t take Stephen Hawking to spot a series of hairline cracks in the coiled glass tubing, along with one hole the size of a small beauty mark. “We found the same thing in every bulb we bought,” Rafailovich says.
Last year, Rafailovich’s research team at Stony Brook conducted a series of experiments showing that these innocent-looking fissures allowed ultraviolet rays to leak out. And leak not just a little of UV radiation but enough to cause skin damage akin to what a day at the beach sans sunscreen might yield. The UV toll on unshielded eyes could be even worse: You may as well be gazing straight at a solar eclipse, she says.
It’s the reason she keeps CFL bulbs far away from her at home, only using them in ceiling fixtures. And more important, it’s why she’s deeply concerned about a little-discussed but profoundly impactful switch already occurring for U.S. consumers. (You can replace your lightbulbs at home, but your office is a different story.)
As Rafailovich speaks, I become keenly aware of the fluorescent light shining on me from the tubes overhead. Such illumination has always seemed a little harsh to me but certainly not harmful—hardly noticeable, in fact. As I soak in what she’s telling me, I flick a glance at the white glow and wonder.
THE UNITED STATES HAD NOT EVEN TURNED 35 WHEN AN English chemist named Humphry Davy made a discovery as profound as the caveman’s first flame: He “created” light by connecting two wires to a battery and placing a charcoal strip between the wires. The light glowed white-hot as the juice from the battery flowed through it.
A practical use for Davy’s invention would not appear for another 70 years, when Thomas Edison, building on decades of hit-and-miss science, created the modern lightbulb by placing a carbon filament in an oxygen-free glass lamp. Edison’s first bulb stayed lit for almost 14 hours-a marvel at the time. Improvements to the discovery, including the replacement of carbon filaments with tungsten, continued through the decades until the bulb lit lamps all over the world. The one nagging problem, however, was that the technology wasted—and still wastes—vast amounts of energy.
And so, on a parallel track with the development of the incandescent bulb, other scientists tinkered with fluorescents. Instead of utilizing a glowing filament, the fluorescent light employs an integrated device called a ballast to produce an electric current that passes through a vapor mix of mercury and argon, exciting the molecules and producing ultraviolet rays. These rays strike the phosphor coating on the bulb, which then gives off visible light. The fluorescent tube as we know it today, the one shining down on cubicles around the world, took far longer to perfect than Edison’s famous invention did. But by the 1970s, these lights had not only come of age but also were mostly replacing the less efficient incandescents in stores, offices, workshops, and plants around the country.
The next step was to create a compact version of this tubular light source. It needed to be about the size of a standard incandescent and to fit into the same screw-based socket. Bending the tubes into the now familiar coil shape solved the problem, and the CFL was born.
In recent years, nations around the world, dazzled by the potential energy savings, have begun phasing out inefficient incandescent bulbs. Canada, Australia, and members of the European Union all either have stopped making the old bulbs or plan to stop soon. The United States started its own process in 2007, when Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act. After 2011, 100-watt incandescent bulbs were no longer being manufactured. On January 1 of this year, 75-watt bulbs followed suit. In 2014, any remaining inefficient incandescents, 60-watt and 40-watt, will fade to black for good.