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Are energy-efficient bulbs making people crazy?
February 11th, 2011
05:07 PM ET

Are energy-efficient bulbs making people crazy?

Too embarrassed to ask your doctor about sex, body quirks, or the latest celeb health fad? In a regular feature and a new book, "What the Yuck?!," Health magazine medical editor Dr. Roshini Raj tackles your most personal and provocative questions. Send 'em to Dr. Raj at whattheyuck@health.com.

Are energy-efficient bulbs making people crazy?

Nope. This is one of those Internet rumors that has a germ of basis in fact. Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) do contain mercury, which can cause neurological damage, especially if you eat it. But you're not eating these light bulbs (I hope)!

As long as the bulb is intact, you're not exposed to mercury so there's no danger. Of course, you do need to be very careful if you break a CFL—air out the room, and don't touch the pieces of the bulb or any of the contents with your bare hands (just like with an old-school mercury thermometer). And when you change a CFL bulb, be sure to recycle it according to regulations in your area—you don't want to expose your trash collector to any mercury from broken bulbs.

Overall, CFLs actually reduce mercury emissions in the environment because they use less energy. Coal-burning power plants emit mercury, so less energy used means less mercury exposure over time.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011


soundoff (121 Responses)
  1. Randy

    EPA charges around $2,000 to $3,000 to PROPERLY clean up your home should a CFL bulb break in your home. Studies showed that cleaning it yourself according the recommended procedures still left mercury levels in your home 10 times higher than what is considered safe. I am slowly switching to all LED and currently have 4 (good expensive ones.) They are expected to take over the CFL market within the next five years as they start to become affordable. Problem is, they have pushed CFL's so much, and haven't provided nearly enough information or means to recycle them, due to no government funding as usually, that these bulbs are gonna show their damage down the road after its too late. LED IS THE WAY TO GO!

    February 19, 2011 at 19:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • monah

      I'm pretty sure the EPA doesn't make house calls. I had a CFL break. I stuck it in a plastic grocery store bag, tied it up and put it out in the trash. No need to worry about mercury leaking into the earth since the bags don't break down over time. Oops! I'm not supposed to put those bags in the trash. Damned if I do, damned if I don't.

      February 20, 2011 at 09:57 | Report abuse |
    • wavejump

      i work maintenance for a large hotel chain and in the course of 3 years have broken dozens and dozens of cfl's. they are very fragile compared to incandescents. whenever any staff member breaks a bulb all we do is sweep it up with a broom and throw it in the trash. no environmental clean up no hazmat team. we do recycle most of the burned out bulbs that dont break but after 3 years of illumination they become very fragile and often break while being removed. also if they are an odd size or i dont feel like walking to the recycle bin i just throw them in the trash and im sure im not the only one.

      February 25, 2011 at 19:10 | Report abuse |
  2. Rick

    Get SKYLIGHTS! Tubular skylights can really light up a dim house and it can save you 50% of your lighting costs over time, plus its real sunlight, what humans were meant to see and be exposed to.

    February 20, 2011 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Sarad

    CFLs may not make *people* crazy, but no one knows what exposure to the sound of the high-frequency electronic ballasts is doing to our pets, many of which can hear higher frequencies than humans. Imagine having to listen to an annoying high-pitched electronic squeal for hours at a time.

    As for poisoning, CFLs may not be poisoning us individually, but many workers in Chinese factories where CFLs are made have suffered serious mercury poisoning. My guess would be that, given the poor environmental oversight that appears to be common in China, mercury is likely being released into the environment, as well. How many of these bulbs are broken in transit, causing hazards to transporters and the environment?

    As for recycling, I wonder what percentage of users even know how dangerous broken CFLs are, let alone that they must be recycled rather than simply tossed, the way a broken incandescent would be. Many CFL retail packages fail to emphasize this sufficiently. How many CFLs end up in landfills, further poisoning the earth?

    All in all, the equation is not as simple as "CFLs use less power and therefore must be cleaner." I'm rooting for the LED bulb to make it to mass market.... [Then we can discuss LED vs. incandescent or CFL.]

    February 21, 2011 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • FRE

      If you are concerned about high frequency sound, then there is some electronic equipment you may wish to avoid.

      The power supplies in computers emit a sound that is above the range of human hearing. So do the power supplies in some audio amplifiers and TV sets. It would be difficult to get away from it.

      February 23, 2011 at 17:14 | Report abuse |
  4. RFD

    I have better than 20-20 vision. II put one of these CFL bulbs in my desk lamp. Not long after, my vision started getting blurry. I replaced the bulb with an incandescent. Within a few days, my vision returned to normal–crystal clear. I then stuck in another CFL. A few days later, my vision got blurry again. Hmmm, perplexing. Could it be a different frequency of light emitted by the bulbs? Then I did some research. It turns out, one of the symptoms of mercury exposure is blurry vision! Caution to everyone - these bulbs apparently outgas mercury over time, whether they are broken or not. Apparently, the seals are not perfect. The same probably goes for fluorescent lighting in classrooms. The person above (LeaveUsAllAlone), who is hypersensitive and gets asthma attacks, is right about these lights giving off chemicals, i.e., mercury. It's about time we replace all of these lights with tube skylights and LEDs - especially kindergarden classrooms, where some of the kid's brains may be ultra sensitive - autism? ADD anyone? Who knows for sure, but let's not risk it.

    February 22, 2011 at 04:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • FRE

      It's hard to see how they could "outgas" mercury since the pressure inside CFLs is considerably less than atmospheric. If the seals were imperfect, air would leak into the tubing and the CFL would stop working.

      Do you have any silver fillings in your teeth? Those are about 50% mercury. You may even be close to people who have silver fillings who are exhaling mercury vapor.

      We become too excited about trivial amounts of mercury. Even if a CFL broke and the pieces scattered about the room, and you did not bother to clean it up, it is unlikely that you'd experience any problems from the mercury. Properly cleaning it up is simply a sensible precaution, not something that is necessary to prevent death or a serious illness. Even some vaccines contain mercury as a preservative. At one time, it was commonly used in paint to prevent mold. Most likely you've already been exposed to far more mercury than is in a CFL.

      Because coal contains some mercury (in addition to some radio active elements), coal burning power plants emit considerable mercury. Of course that's not good; I mention it only to keep things in perspective.

      February 23, 2011 at 17:23 | Report abuse |
    • No Paranoia Required

      It is not Mercury poisoning! CFLs are just harder on the eyes, they strobe really fast, a standard incandescent bulb produces a fairly consistent amount of light and is easier on the eyes.

      March 10, 2011 at 14:27 | Report abuse |
  5. Lila

    I do not like using the new bulbs. The light they give off is of poor quality and I do not believe they are safe. It's laughable that that simply "airing out" a room when one is broken will keep you and your family safe from the mercury. And there are no places anywhere close to where I live to recycle these bulbs. If you think people are going to drive somewhere just to recycle light bulbs, you're fooling yourself. They will go in the trash and to the landfill where the mercury will continue to pollute.

    Thanks, CFL manufacturers!!

    February 22, 2011 at 17:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • FRE

      Regarding the poor quality light, that is a generalization. Many CFLs emit very high quality light, but there are many which emit poor quality light. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to distinguish one from the other until you try them.

      Traditional fluorescent tubes generally have the CRI (color rendition index) printed on the package; it's a 2 -digit number ranging from about 60 to the high 90s. The higher the number, the higher quality the light is. Unfortunately, CFLs use only a 1-digit number, which is actually the 2-digit number rounded off. Thus, the number gives a less accurate indication of the light quality, and often you cannot even find the number.

      If you can find CFLs with a CRI greater than 90 (and that may be impossible locally) with a color temperature you like, probably you will be very happy with them. You may have to use the Internet to order them because most stores do not have high quality CFLs.

      February 23, 2011 at 17:32 | Report abuse |
    • Yousuf

      Review by J. Arndt for Rating: Took a chance as there are a few nevitage reviews regarding the quality of the lamp. It came in excellent condition. 1st quality without any flaws. We use them on our nightstands which are 30 inches high. With the nightstands level with the mattress the pull string is just a few inches higher then the table. Very easy to turn off light at night. Very pleased with the style.

      March 6, 2012 at 01:10 | Report abuse |
  6. Digital Doctor

    People who think they are saving the plant with curly mercury lightbulbs (CFL) are missing the big picture. North America needs massive changes to become reasonable global citizens. Massive change. Changing to CFL or LED bulbs represents almost no real change. I think making super duper small changes when big changes are needed is referred to as "nickeling and diming".

    February 24, 2011 at 07:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. jamie

    I have yet to replace a CFL bulb and I started switching them out 5 years ago. the "warm up" time is a little irritating, but some bulbs dont' have the lag, they just cost a little more. As for the dimness, keep in mind if a lamp says not to put more than a 40 watt bulb in there, it doesn't mean u can't use a higher wattage on an energy effeicient bulb. Don't go for the 40w go for the 60, they only use 23 watts, so they won't blow your lamp. I have regularly bulbs in the fixtures that require "candleabra" bulbs and i'm replacing those several times a year. I love the CFLs

    February 24, 2011 at 10:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. DesertFusion

    I love these bulbs! Each bulb saves me approx $5 a month off my electric bill, so they pay for themselves pretty quickly.
    They are slow to warm up as they age, so I try to keep the bulb changing in cycles. Dining room was done first, a year later I changed over in the kitchen, etc. So they tend to wear out in that order, and I always have a backup light if one is getting old.
    I use traditional lampshades and covers with them, so we usually don't notice the flicker, even in the bathroom.

    So far they've been a thoroughly positive experience.

    February 24, 2011 at 10:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Brad Buscher

    As this article states, CFLs are a better solution, both economically and environmentally, than incandescent bulbs, which ultimately result in greater mercury exposure than CFLs, because they consume more power and require more power generation. In comparison to their incandescent counterparts, CFLs emit approximately the same amount of visible light and last 8 to 15 times as long. With a proven packaging configuration and proper disposal, CFLs can be used effectively without releasing harmful mercury vapor.

    While a variety of containers are marketed for transportation of fluorescent lamps and CFLs, many don't provide sufficient protection against mercury vapor emitted from broken lamps. As this article states, consumers should properly dispose of these lamps if broken or burned out. If a lamp burns out, consumers can learn how to safely package CFLs at vaporlok.blogspot.com/2010/05/layers-of-protection-packaging-used.html. If a bulb breaks, consumers can learn more about clean-up procedures at vaporlok.blogspot.com/2010/07/cfl-usage-and-what-you-should-do-if-cfl.html

    February 24, 2011 at 13:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jason

    The use less watts but use up more amps. Your electric company has to generate those amps so they will be modifying their billing to account for the extra load. They also generate IR radiation. Give me a plain ole incandescent any day.

    February 24, 2011 at 17:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. greg ess

    apologies to Mr. RF engineer above, but I have seen several papers which stated that the largest single point source of Electro Magnetic Radiation Transients was the humble CFL. do a search on 'electrosmog' and you will see some of the research. The health effects of RFI transients have not been fully researched, but have been implicated in the development of various cancers, cardiac arhythmias, and other serious health concerns. The decision to mandate these bulbs was an error based on incomplete research. My entire family experienced migraines – including some extremely serious complex migranes - as well as cardiac issues after i replaced all the incandescents in my home. After reading some of the initial data, I removed more than 30 of these things from my home – at substantial cost - and all afflicted had them symptoms disappear. I've written my senators and representatives to get them to revisit the issue. I'll be stocking up on incandescents, thanx. Anyone that wants several cases of mine is welcome to them for free – but you'll need to sign a waiver.

    February 24, 2011 at 17:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Damon

    I hate CFLs. They do not last as long, they don't look as good/bright, they don't work well in the cold, they leak mercury into local landfills (rather than being consolidated at a power plant), they cost more, they are fragile, the weight more... The government needs to get out of peoples lives and let the economy work, people will pick the best product for the price.

    February 24, 2011 at 22:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. ann marie

    We moved to an apartment with CFL lighting in some of the rooms. After two years here I am suffering horrible fatigue as are my daughter and two teenage grandchildren. Suffering sleep disturbances, visual problems, EXTREME dizziness, heart palpitations, red inflammation on neck and face, breathing difficulties, and blood pressure problems. Can't be in a store very long now either without getting sick. Guess just another way of population control-we're just not dying off fast enough. Next they will mandate exhaust pipes be routed into your car to save us from global warming. Buy some stock in curly pipes now and get rich.

    March 2, 2011 at 00:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. hillbilleter

    This article only addresses ONE of the health risks associated with flourescent lighting. Mercury is not the only hazard. The human body developed under the full-spectrum lighting given off by the sun, and filtered by the Earth's atmosphere. We need the FULL spectrum of light to maintain mental and physical well-being. Studies show that the narrower-band of colors in flourescent lighting is bad for the development of children, and can cause mental disorders to worsen, or even trigger them. Autoimmune disorders also worsen under flourescent lighting – spending an hour at Walmart can put an AI sufferer in bed for days, if not put them in the hospital.

    So, maybe the mercury isn't as bad as rumor might have it, as long as you know how to handle a breakage, but hang out at Walmart and see the change in your physical and mental status.

    March 10, 2011 at 16:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. asthma

    Asthma education plays a key role in helping you cope with both the condition of asthma and its effects. There is much you can do for yourself, both in terms of avoiding possible trigger factors and in keeping the body in a relaxed and calm state.

    January 6, 2012 at 06:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Christina Crowell

    If you suffer from muscle or joint pain including arthritis, then I recommend that you try a infrared lamp that uses a 250 watt bulb. Start with one to two 20-30 minutes sessions twice per day. In a very short time within 2 weeks usually you should experience relief from the pain.

    Based on the experience of and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of myself and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of my wife and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of myself and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of my wife and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of my wife and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of myself and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of myself and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of myself and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of my wife and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of myself and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of my wife and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of my wife and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of myself and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of myself and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of my wife and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of myself and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of my wife and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of my wife and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of my wife and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of my wife and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of myself and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    Based on the experience of myself and numerous friends and family members it is hard to beat a Infrared Lamp with a 250 watt bulb for arthritis and muscle – joint pain relief. although the Infrared Lamp is the "old Technology" it is still the most effective thing that I have been able to find.

    January 9, 2012 at 16:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Zeenat

    If you want to save money on electricity, and have itsannt bright lights without danger to you and yours there is a range of LED lights. These can be bought in a wide range, of different spectrums from daylight to moonlight. They use very little power and are cheap to run. They last a long time. If broken or crushed down into landfill the present no problemSome people use CFL (Compact fluorescent light bulbs) basically they have been told that they save power and save the world, however because these contain deadly toxic mercury, then who will take the blame. As I stated to one politician. What does it take a sobbing woman holding two dead children in her arms?They say if one of these bulbs breaks in a sealed room it can kill or seriously effect health for the rest of your life. Also if a CFL light is in a desk light within a range up to 2 ft because of the high levels of UV (Ultra Violet) light rays it can cause skin cancer. The strobing in these lights and their very dimness can lead to migraine headaches and depression.With regards to mercury, 1 gram of mercury (That is about the third of the size of a strawberry) that small amount of mercury can pollute 4 MILLION litres of water. So you are not really saving the environment by using them, only putting your own life and health at risk.So even though the standard CFL only contains a very small amount of mercury, imagine what it would do if millions were crushed down into landfill and seeping down into a water table, river or stream how much damage it would do to the environment.Regards

    March 6, 2012 at 01:16 | Report abuse | Reply
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