The February newsletter from the Institute of Bau-Biologie arrived in the Inbox this morning and it contains a rather damning article about the hidden dangers of CFL’s. In my profession of lighting designer I’ve been aware of this for quite some time and there has been much discussion in the industry as to whether they are actually more efficient in real terms than conventional sources (in general the answer is a resounding NO – they cost more to produce, they perversely put more strain on power generation, they are highly polluting if not disposed of properly etc.).
This article by Diana Schultz focuses mainly on the health hazards relating to breakage of the lamps and the subsequent release of vaporised mercury into the atmosphere. The Environmental Protection Agency in the States has released some guidelines for lamp disposal and cleaning up mercury spills from broken lamps that are pretty extreme and involve evacuating the house for a period of time and cutting out pieces of carpet if they are contaminated!
Manufacture of these units is also very hazardous and the risks of mercury poisoning are high. Most of them are made in China, and there are reports of workers dying from the toxic effects of mercury exposure.
Needless to say, these lamps should be carefully recycled by an appropriate facility; but how many councils in the UK are equipped to deal with this? How many consumers are prepared to make the effort to return their used CFLs to a recycling centre? Most people will simply dispose of them with the rest of their rubbish, which means that our waste dumps are going to be leaking mercury into the local water tables. There isn’t a lot of Mercury in a CFL – about 5mg or so – but in a municipal waste tip that will soon add up.
The other issue surrounding CFL’s is the actual light quality from them. Many people are sensitive to the high-frequency flickering that the lamps produce and experience headaches and eyestrain. Incandescent bulbs don’t have this flickering problem as the filament (which is essentially a burning piece of metal) damps down the cycling of the mains electricity. Fluorescents on the other hand, have to incorporate some electronic circuitry that actually makes them flicker many hundreds of times faster than the 50 Hertz (in the UK) of our mains electricity so that we don’t notice it. That’s the theory at least – yet many people do still notice it, and are affected by it.
Fluorescents also emit a narrower spectrum of light compared to an incandescent, which is why some people find it harder to read under fluorescent lighting. CFLs are improving as manufacturers experiment with different coatings and enclosures, but this is always going to be a problem.
Light-Emitting Diode (LED) technology is coming on leaps and bounds and every year brighter and more efficient LED sources appear; but we still have a few years to go before they will be replacing the main light sources in our homes.