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Are fluorescent bulbs safe?

Published:Saturday | February 7, 2015 | 2:00 AM

The Tranquil Way - Dr Douglas Street

With concerns about global warming and the depletion of fossil fuels rising, incandescent lighting is becoming increasingly unpopular and have even been banned in some areas.

Fluorescent bulbs, on the other hand, have been increasing in popularity and usage, but concerns have been expressed about their potential negative impact on our health. How valid are these concerns?

A fluorescent bulb is a very low pressure mercury-vapour gas-discharge lamp. Electric current is passed through the gas which causes it to produce ultraviolet light which causes the phosphor on the surface of the glass to fluoresce and produce visible light. It produces white light, which is better for visibility at 25 per cent of the energy used by incandescent bulbs, with less heat production and longer life. Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFBs) have been gaining popularity as they are small and can fill the socket made for the incandescent bulbs so no installation cost is attached.

Induce Headaches

For some time now, however, some have complained that they may be harmful to our health. Some have complained that may induce headaches, especially migraine sufferers. However, this does not seem to be the problem for the majority of users. There are persons, though, who seem to be particularly sensitive to them, including persons with autism.

Use Of Mercury

Another concern expressed about them is their use of mercury, which may affect the home as well as external environment. Mercury gas, if inhaled, can affect the kidney, lungs, gastrointestinal tract and the nerves, especially in younger children. The mercury gas can escape if the bulb breaks. If this should happen, the area should be vacated for a while, and then the affected surfaces and fragments cleaned up with a damp cloth. It is also recommended that fluorescent bulbs be handled in ways that will minimise breakage, and that they be recycled. Incidentally, some methods of electricity production may also release mercury into the environment.

The use of ultraviolet light has also been frowned upon by some. Ultraviolet light can damage the skin and can even cause premature skin ageing and some skin cancers. This concern has been heightened by the recent discovery of cracks in the phosphor layer of the CFBs. Pigmented individuals probably have little to fear from this problem but some have advised that a distance of two feet should be maintained between the bulbs and their users. Using bulbs with a thicker phosphor layer may also reduce this threat.