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CFLs - a Potential Health Concern?

On one hand, the introduction of any new technology should be evaluated in terms of potential long-term impacts upon human health.  On the other hand, if we become too timid and paralyzed by fear of the unknown we will never make any progress.  However, there can be no question that wisdom dictates the application of common sense, and that caution is not misplaced when there is substantial reason to suspect negative health implications.

Such concerns may warranted in the case of public policy urging, or requiring  widespread adoption of Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) as a replacement for incandescent bulbs  in an attempt to conserve energy and thus reduce the emissions of greenhouse gas.  While any attempt to conserve energy is laudable, and a drastic reduction of greenhouse gases is essential for no less than the survival of our civilization, we must also ensure that the wide-spread introduction of products such as CFLs are accompanied by any required systems necessary to protect health and our environment.

Of immediate concern with CFLs is the fact that they contain small amounts of mercury, a potent neurotoxin which can cause kidney and brain disease.  The amount of mercury in a standard CFL is only about 5 milligrams and has been reduced to about 1.25 milligrams in low-mercury models, and the mercury is safely sealed within the glass tube.  If sufficient care is applied to prevent their breakage, the mercury contained within CFLs should present no health or environmental concerns.  However CFLs will be broken.

As CFLs become more popular, it is obvious that more bulbs will be disposed of as they burn out.  They will be tossed in garbage cans, broken in dumpsters, and collection trucks (exposing sanitation workers to toxic fumes) and during the compaction of landfills.  As the 5 milligrams of mercury from a single standard CFL is sufficient to contaminate about 6,000 gallons of drinking water when it eventually escapes from a landfill it is apparent that special care must be applied to the disposal of the large number of CFLs currently envisioned.

The mercury in CFLs can be successfully reclaimed and recycled, but it requires care and special facilities.  The process is complicated by the fact that in contrast to standard tube-type fluorescent lamps, CFLs also contain electronic components in their ceramic base that also include small quantities of hazardous  materials and require special handling.

In many jurisdictions the recycling of CFLs is now required by law or regulation; however, the mechanisms for both enforcement and individual compliance are usually lacking.  And, when evaluated it may turn out that the energy cost of the disposal and recycling of CFLs exceeds their intended savings.

In any event, if the sale of CFLs is permitted it would appear that their return for recycling should be mandatory.  This will require convenient drop-off locations and perhaps even an economic stimulus such as a recycling deposit added to the initial purchase of the CFL.  For a community to permit, or even encourage the sale of a product with hazardous elements and not provide for, and require, its safe disposal exhibits a total lack of responsibility.

CFLs also present other health concerns, including a possible role in increased cancer rates.  In December of 2007 the World Health Organization took the unusual step of classifying shift work as a "Probable Carcinogen" based on the results from a number of research studies which showed increased rates of cancer in shift workers.  Nurses and airline stewardesses who routinely worked shifts have been found to more likely to develop breast cancer and from more limited studies it appears that male shift workers may have elevated rates of  prostate cancer. Likewise, research has found the exposure of test animals to to light in the middle of the night results in increased breast and other cancers. 

The evolution of all biological creatures, including man, has occurred in an environment of alternating periods of light and uninterrupted darkness, with the length of the dark and light periods varying only by season.  We often refer to the "biological clock" of an organism, and  virtually all biological life does indeed contain an internal regulator that is tied to the circadian rhythm of night and day.  It has long been known, that it is the length of the uninterrupted dark period that controls such biological process as plant flowering, the migration of animals and in humans so called "jet-lag".  It is also well established that  a key role in regulating the biological circadian rhythms is played by a hormone called melatonin.  Melatonin is found in virtually all organism, from single celled algae to humans where it is produced primarily by the pineal gland located in the middle of the brain and also in lower amounts by the retina and lens of the eye and the gastrointestinal tract.  We also know that melatonin is produced only during the dark cycle, with production peaking near the middle of the natural dark period, and that production of melatonin is inhibited by even a brief exposure to light.  Importantly, light in the blue portion of the spectrum is especially efficient in inhibiting melatonin production. 

In addition to serving as a biological regulator, melatonin is also known to play an important role in suppressing the formation of tumors, and thus its absence is a primary suspect in the increased rates of cancers in shift workers.  We also know that the blue portion of the light spectrum is especially efficient in inhibiting melatonin production in humans, and that the light produced by CFls is especially rich in the blue light - therefore the suspected relationship between CFLs and breast and other cancers.

Is there unequivocal evidence that CFLs cause cancer - obviously not.  But rather than experiment on the general population for the next 20 years or so until we have a definitive answer, it appears that it just might be prudent not to rush into this new technology.  In this case, caution might also be warranted since it does not appear that CFLs will reduce overall, life-cycle energy consumption when compared to the existing incandescent technology.   And it also does not appear wise to introduce additional hazardous mercury into the environment when alternatives are available.  In the long run, we may just be infecting an enormous public health problem on future generations so that we might preserve our present, consumptive lifestyle.

CFLs provide a good example of what may be unintended consequences of poor policy.  When we carefully examine the ramifications of many "quick fix" solutions we are usually once again reminded that "there is no such thing as a free lunch".  The only solution, may be for all of us to alter our lifestyles and expectations.  It need not require a painful sacrifice - simple individual actions such as just turning off a few, unneeded lights could result in the same energy savings as CFL, without the accompanying public health and environmental concerns.  It would be an effective start!

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