The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Direct CFL Light May Harm Skin

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Direct CFL Light May Harm Skin

Jason Yang
Jul 23, 2012

Green, green, green… that's all we seem to hear about new products and new ideas. With compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL), we're told they last longer and use less energy. But there's more to it than just saying something is more energy efficient. Here, we break down the truth about CFLs and explain what's good, bad, and downright scary.

The Good

If every American home replaced just one light bulb with a light bulb that's earned the ENERGY STAR, we would save enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year, save about $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to those from about 800,000 cars. - Energy Star

However you qualify such claims, there's no doubt that the standard incandescent light bulb is being blacked out in favor of new and improved light bulbs. If you consider the government's Energy Star program's list of key product criteria for a CFL light bulb, you'd think it's a definite win-win to go CFL.

Efficiency -- The efficiency of light bulbs is referred to as efficacy, which is the measure of light output (lumens) compared to the energy (watts) needed to power the bulb. To earn the ENERGY STAR, CFLs must provide at least three times more lumens per watt than incandescent bulbs.

Lumen maintenance -- All light bulbs grow dim over time, but ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs must maintain 80 percent of the initial light output at 40 percent of their rated lifetime. This means that after 3,200 hours of use, an 8,000-hour CFL still needs to give off 80 percent of the light it gave off during its first 100 hours of operation.

Lifetime -- To qualify for ENERGY STAR, CFLs must have a rated lifetime of 6,000 hours or greater. The current average rated lifetime for ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs is 10,000 hours. With typical use of 3 hours per day, that's an average lifetime of 9 years.

Starting time -- Bulbs must start in less than one second.

Warm-up time -- Bulbs with mercury vapor must reach full brightness in less than one minute. Bulbs with amalgam mercury must reach full brightness in under three minutes.

Safety -- Bulbs must be UL listed for fire safety. More about UL testing Exit ENERGY STAR

Reliability -- Bulbs must pass transient protection and rapid cycle stress tests.

Color consistency -- Bulbs must fall within a designated color temperature range.

Color rendering index (CRI) -- Bulbs must have a color rendering index of 80 or higher.

Quality control -- All qualified bulbs come with a manufacturer-backed warranty and are subject to random independent third-party testing. As of December 2, 2008 all indoor reflector lamps must pass a high heat test for recessed can applications.

Mercury control -- Manufacturers must have a commitment form on file with National Equipment Manufacturers Association Voluntary Industry Commitment to Limit Mercury Content in Self-ballasted CFLs sold in the U.S. at Exit ENERGY STAR.

Other federal and industry standards -- Bulbs must also comply with federal and industry power and operating standards, and meet Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requirements.

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The Bad

So if these CFL light bulbs are supposed to save the world with energy efficiency and longevity, what could be so bad about that? Well, first of all, we consider the cost; the cost of a CFL bulb can be several times that of a standard incandescent bulb, at the least. Then there's the question of that so-called longevity. Consider this MythBusters experiment where CFLs burned out at just 5.1% of their listed lifespan.

Also, in the old days, if you had a light go out you'd simply pop into the store and grab the same old bulb. But now you have so many options the buying process becomes a dizzying task. You'll need to consider not just the tons of variations of bulbs themselves, but also consider what's compatible with your lights, devices, and switches.

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The Ugly

So there are pros and cons of CFL lightbulbs, but a new, darker reality has been slowly coming to light (pun intended). Concerns about true environmental impact as well as health concerns have some questioning the environmental experts and governments pushing the technology. From GreenMuze:

CFLs pose a danger to people's health and well being, as well as adding even more toxicity to the environment. In fact, CFLs do not reduce a person's carbon footprint and may even increase it in some situations. To make matters even worse, CFLs emit harmful levels of electromagnetic radiation.

Questions about the health implications of CFLs bring an entirely new aspect that consumers likely hadn't even considered. And here we all thought we were saving the world by buying CFLs. From co.EXIST:

[A] report, published in Photochemistry and Photobiology, found that healthy skin exposed to light from CFL bulbs experienced the kind of damage that is found with ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

The Dark Side Of CFL Bulbs: They Can Hurt Your Skin
The Dark Side of CFLs

So Now What?

So what's your take? Do you subscribe to the idea that CFLs are better for the environment and worth the initial cost investment? Are the potential risks worth the price of possibly saving the world? Enlighten us with your thoughts and perspectives, AT readers!

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(Images: Shutterstock)

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