Shorter version of the factsheet available here.
(Summary also available as a PDF here)
Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are currently the main type of energy-saving light bulbs on the market. There are three principal problems with CFLs: electromagnetic radiation, mercury and UV-radiation.
Measurements show that CFLs generate powerful electromagnetic fields (EMF) close to the source, up to 1 meter distance (1). The independent French research centre CRIIREM therefore warns not to use energy saving lamps at too close a distance, for example, as desk lamps or as a reading lamp beside the bed (2). The ban on incandescent lamps however will result in more people using CFLs as desk or bed lamps, thereby exposing people to very high levels of EMF.
In addition, there are indications that the EMFs emitted by CFLs can travel along the electrical wiring thereby exposing people to so-called ‘dirty electricity’ throughout the house. A study published in June 2008 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine indicated that this dirty electricity leads to a 5-fold increased risk of cancer (3). A harmful influence of dirty electricity has also been found in research done by the Canadian researcher Magda Havas (4).
Low voltage halogen lamps (12 V) can also be harmful due to EMFs originating from the transformers. This is particularly the case with the pulsed radiation from “electronic transformers”, which can also contaminate the mains to give dirty electricity. Mains voltage halogen lamps (220 V) do not have this effect.
CFLs contain 3 to 5 milligrams of mercury, an extremely toxic substance for the brain, the nervous system, kidneys and liver. In spite of the claim that CFLs contain only a very small amount of mercury, this amount is more than enough to cause significant damage to health. Especially fetuses and small children are at risk, as mercury affects the development of the brain and the nervous system.
Measurements show that when a lamp breaks, the mercury vapours escape and these emissions far exceed safety levels, even weeks after the breakage (5). The lamps that are thrown in the garbage are either broken in the dump truck, transferring the mercury vapours all over the city, or end up on a landfill, where the mercury can further contaminate the air, the water and the soil.
It is often claimed that energy saving lamps will actually reduce mercury emissions, due to the offset power use (coal releases mercury as it is burned). However, some experts question the validity of this argument (6).
The ban on incandescent lamps and the increasing use of CFLs will bring hundreds of kilograms of mercury straight into our houses and streets.
CFL’s without an extra envelope and some types of halogen lamps emit UV-B and traces of UV-C radiation. It is well known that this type of radiation is harmful to the skin (i.e. skin cancer) and to the eye (i.e. cataract). Several studies show that fluorescent lamps indeed increase the risk for skin cancer (7).
The British Association of Dermatologists says that people with certain skin diseases and light sensitivity are reporting an aggravation of their symptoms as a result from energy saving lamps (8). But also people without pre-existing skin conditions can develop allergic and sunburn-like symptoms in the face (9).
An extra envelope around the CFL can circumvent the problem of UV-radiation, but as long as CFLs without a double envelope are sold on the market, UV-radiation will continue to be a risk factor.
Other problems associated with CFLs include flicker (which can lead to headaches, eye strain and concentration problems) (10) and the large proportion of blue light, which is known to lower the production of the hormone melatonin, which in turn can cause sleeping problems, tumours, heart attacks, etc.
Bundesamt fuer Energie BEF, Electromagnetic fields of energy saving lamps, 2004,
(4) Havas, M. 2006. Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Biological effects of dirty electricity with
emphasis on diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine, 25: 259-
(7) V. Beral, S. Evans, H. Shaw & G. Milton (1982), ‘Malignant melanoma and exposure to fluorescent lighting at work’, The Lancet, 7 August 1982, pp. 290-293.
Lytle CD, Cyr WH, Beer JZ, Miller SA, James RH, Landry RJ, et al. An estimation of squamous cell carcinoma risk from ultraviolet radiation emitted by fluorescent lamps. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed 1992/1993; 9:268-274.
(8) ‘Low-energy bulbs ‘worsen rashes’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7170246.stm
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CVLa_tRslY (coverage on Canadian television)
(10) ‘Low-energy bulbs cause migraine’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7167860.stm
‘Fluorescent lights giving pupils headaches’, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/09/06/nlights106.xml