Are CFL Bulbs a Health Hazard?

By Jakob Barry, Networx

If I asked you to draw a symbol representing an idea or thought it’s a good chance you’ll sketch a light bulb — specifically, the incandescent model. Well, hold on to that image because as part of the US government’s Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 the incandescent bulb will be phased out by 2012. The Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL), which is already being used around the globe and has a different look, will take its place as the bulb of the future.

Unlike incandescent bulbs, the benefits of CFLs are clear: they include a much longer life, use far less electricity, and emit little heat. However, overshadowing the advantages are several important health concerns being raised not just in the US but around the world.

CFLs contain mercury. Is it dangerous?

On average CFLs contain abut four milligrams of mercury, a small trace of the highly toxic substance that is extremely hazardous when digested or inhaled. By comparison older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams, which is equal to the mercury in over 100 CFLs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spilling more than a thermometer’s worth but less than two tablespoons (one pound) necessitates a call to your local health or environmental agency. Anything more and that and the National Response Center (NRC) must be notified immediately. So what does this mean for a CFL that smashed in your house? It’s a serious problem but not life threatening if handled properly. The immediate aftermath seems to be the most critical in terms of controlling contamination. Small children, pregnant woman, and pets are the most at risk. In the event a bulb breaks the EPA has a step by step list of what to do.

CFLs emit ultra violet (UV) light

Manufacturers say there is no health risk for prolonged usage, as eight hours of exposure to CFL UV light is about the same as one minute in full sunlight. For the average person this shouldn’t be a problem, however, people with light sensitive disorders may feel differently. Some international studies revealed even small amounts of CFL UV light can aggravate symptoms in chronic actinic dermatitis (CAD), a state where the skin becomes inflamed after reacting to sun or artificial light, and solar urticaria, a rare condition in which exposure to UV light induces a case of hives on both covered and uncovered areas of the skin. For the general population, in order to evade skin and retinal damage studies in Canada and elsewhere suggest avoiding CFL exposure at distances less than 12 inches which could approach, but not exceed, acceptable limits. There is no cause for concern regarding skin cancer.

Blue Light radiation, Flicker, Hums, Electric Magnetic Fields (EMF)

These issues are associated with older florescent lights and affected people with conditions including epilepsy, lupus, and autism. According to the experts newer CFLs no longer pose a hazard.

For a list of further myths and facts about CFLs see this report by Consumer Reports.

Down and Dirty on CFLs
The CFL Controversy Continues: Who Knew?
5 Reasons You Might Buy a $50 Light Bulb
Image: kwod/stock.xchng


William C
William Cabout a year ago

Thank you.

W. C
W. Cabout a year ago


Kecia Middleton
Kay M7 years ago

Great article. Thank you for sharing it with others!

Mit W.
Mit Wes7 years ago

Another mercury fact to be aware of is the ratio of natural to manmade releases of mercury to the atmosphere.

To summarize, nature releases 5207Mg per year and humans release 2320Mg per year. Making a ratio of greater than 2:1 in favor of nature. This is not to say that we shouldn't endeavor to minimize mercury use and to use what we do wisely but it shows that there will always be a risk of mercury in fish and food, no matter what we do and our efforts to reduce mercury in the environment will be limited.

Mit W.
Mit Wes7 years ago

If the United States were to use up 1 billion CFL's per year, that comes out to about 3.3 tons of mercury (3mg per bulb), across the country. In comparison, the amount of mercury used in the production of thermostats (residential and commercial) in the US in 2007 and 2004 was 3.9 and 14.6 tons of mercury respectively.

Brandon C.
Brandon C.7 years ago

Thanks - Interesting article!

Addys D.
a D7 years ago

i would have appreciated if the article had better info to offer us. like most times they are tid-bits of inconclusive floating info. Hoe ab mentioning that LED lights are showing to be far superior in durability and not posing a mercury threat. Like someone mentioned before, ppl tend to do the lazy thing and throw those CFL bulbs right into the landfills. Up until recently, here in the U.S. is that Lowe's made it their problem to recycle CFL bulbs (this is the only one I know of) cause the landfill didn't have a place for them (at least where I live). They always treat the symptoms and not the causes!!! I also agree they should not force us to use them and improve the LED to its maximum potential. -Peace

Robert O.
Bob B7 years ago

GE is only a small manufacturer of CFL's. They couldn't possibly control this market or influence it.

Most CFL's are made in factories owned by Phillips and Chinese companies.

Robert O.
Bob B7 years ago

Some people think CFL's are being promoted by GE. That is silly. Most CFL's are made in China by GE competitors.

Besides that, the reason we have CFL's, nuclear power plants in earthquake zones, and high gasoline prices is the extreme actions and pressures from the environmental movement.

They won't allow normal and gradual moves toward a greener future, they want it now, right bloody now!

Paul B.
Paul B7 years ago

This was just another bone to GE in the first place. They were the ones who benefited most from this mandate, brought on as part og the global warning initiative that GE was also a big part of. Windmill turbines, solar panels, they were even anticipating making billions in the energy credit marketplace management. Cronyism is still alive and well, yes, even in the Democratic controlled congress. Imagine that!!!
We need to repeal this awful legislation, if for no other reason than the major health risk of mercury poisoning. We have more efficient incandescents, and the potential dangers of the extra energy usage is far better than the direct known danger of mercury poisoning.