Do energy-saving bulbs really cause cancer

In recent times, a certain picture went viral on social media showing a man’s feet that was severely infected because of a cut from a broken energy-saving bulb.
The caption stated that mercury contained in the bulb was responsible for the decayed, unhealing wound. Some came out to say that once an energy-saving bulb breaks, the mercury is released to the atmosphere and can cause severe repercussions when inhaled. Others posited that the fact that these bulbs contain mercury means their use, whether broken or otherwise, is dangerous.  Generally, there have been controversies surrounding the use of energy-saving bulbs with it being linked to health problems ranging from headaches and mercury poisoning to cancer.

When the electric incandescent light bulbs, commonly known in this part of the world as “yellow bulb”, or “ordinary bulb” because of  the common yellowish colour of the light rays from the bulbs, hit our market, it came to become one of the everyday conveniences that most affected our lives. Practically every home and public place had these bulbs which boasted of a wide range of light output and voltage ratings, spanning 1.5 volts to about 300 volts. They were low cost and could easily be incorporated into electrical systems.

However with time, they became a source of environmental concern. Researchers discovered that they are not energy efficient as only about five per cent of total energy used by an incandescent bulb is converted to light energy, while the remaining 95 per cent is converted to heat energy meaning waste of energy. Principal EHS and Pollution Consultant, Gimet Safety Inc, Mr Temiloluwa Gbarada, adds that “incandescent bulbs consume huge amount of electricity and emit green house gases which have been implicated in global climate change.” As a result, countries across the globe, including Nigeria, began the phasing out of these bulbs and introduced Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs) commonly called energy-saving bulbs.

Energy-saving bulbs were said to have about 9000 hours lifespan or more while incandescent lamps were said to have about 1000 hours. In fact, it was estimated that the change from the conventional incandescent light bulbs, to the energy saving fluorescent bulbs would result in a reduction of 376kw/hr of electricity during the lifetime of each bulb, and a 75 per cent decrease in the emission of greenhouse gases. According to Dr Best Ordinioha of the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, Faculty of Clinical Sciences College of Health Sciences, University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, “the use of the energy saving bulbs are promoted, especially in Nigeria, as one of the ways of solving the country’s energy deficit, as the electricity consumed by the usual 60 watts incandescent bulb is enough to light up at least four energy saving bulbs of the same illumination. They are also efficient and have the capacity to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.” So, it became a global campaign for the use of CFLs.

However, with the rising controversies surrounding its use, researchers have been saddled with the responsibility of providing clarifications. In a study entitled “The Effects of UV Emission from CFL Exposure on Human Dermal Fibroblasts and Keratinocytes in Vitro,” published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology, the researchers, led by Miriam Rafailovich, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and the Director of the Garcia Center for Polymers at Engineered Interfaces at Stony Brook University, USA, collected CFLs purchased from different locations, and then measured the amount of Ultra Violet (UV) emissions. The results revealed significant levels of UVC and UVA, which appeared to originate from cracks in the phosphor coatings, present in all CFL bulbs studied.  The team took the same bulbs and studied the effects of exposure on healthy human skin tissue cells. The findings showed that “the response of healthy skin cells to UV emitted from CFL bulbs is consistent with damage from ultraviolet radiation.” Experts say UV radiation could initiate cell death and cause skin cancer in its deadliest form.

However, professor of Radiation and Health Physics and Dean, Faculty of Science, University of Ibadan, Professor Idowu Farai, states that though CFLs produce UV radiation, they don’t produce at hazardous amounts and in fact, produce at less than the amount produced by natural sunlight. “Radiations that can be injurious to health are in those in the category of ionising radiation such as x-rays and gamma rays from radioactive materials. The energy in this radiation is so high that they can disrupt cell functions when the body becomes overwhelmed by exposure. Radiation from CFLs poses no health effect because it is in the class of non-ionising radiation. In fact, there is no amount of radiation from these bulbs that can compare with what the sun emits. Radiation from CFLs while in use is completely harmless. Radiation from CFLs also doesn’t cause cancer. Where the risk of cancer may lie is in the accumulation of mercury in the soil and consequently food chain when CFLs are improperly disposed of.”

Mr Gbarada says, “The phosphor coating inside the glass (which makes the glass of the bulb appear milky white in colour) is meant to trap the UV light emitted. However, research has shown that at a distance of 11 inches and more from the CFL bulbs, there is very low risk of problems arising from UV radiation.”

  As for the viral picture alleging the danger of broken CFLs because of their mercury content,  Mr Gbarada says “I disagree with the fact that the amount of mercury contained in one CFL bulb poses grave danger to home inhabitants. CFLs do not emit mercury as they operate. The mercury in these bulbs is only released if the bulb is broken. However, if proper clean up procedures are followed, there is no cause for alarm.”

Regarding alleged complications from wounds inflicted by CFLs, Dr Farai says, “any broken piece of glass that pierces the flesh exposes the skin to infections. It is very unlikely that the decay of the wound was caused by mercury. It’s most likely a result of the wound not properly cared for. Mercury, by itself, does not cause infections.”

Though these bulbs indeed contain mercury, experts say where concern about its mercury content should lie is in how the bulbs are disposed. The call for proper disposal of energy saving bulbs comes to light in the face of environmental pollution which could inadvertently affect one’s health. Dr Ordinioha says, “Burnout and broken light bulbs are commonly disposed in the various unofficial dumpsites in Nigeria where they can easily contaminate ground water. The disposal of the bulbs in the riverine communities of Nigeria is into the surface water bodies that often serve as a source of drinking water to members of the communities. This exposes members of these communities to mercury and provides the opportunity for the bio-accumulation of mercury in fish and other aquatic organisms in the surface water. Fish and shell fish are known to bio-accumulate mercury to several times the concentration of the water in which they live, and is often enough to cause widespread poisoning.”

 According to Mr Gbarada, “You cannot just sweep a CFL bulb with broom and vacuum cleaner, you may contaminate the environment. Care should also be taken during disposal of CFL bulbs; they should not be disposed with normal waste. If CFL bulbs are destroyed like normal waste in dump sites, there is a risk of accumulation of mercury in dump sites over a long period of time, this can sip into ground water and  may eventually be taken up by plant from soil. Accumulation of mercury over time may pose significant danger to health.” Mercury is a neuro-toxin, but damages have also been reported in the kidney, skin and the cardiovascular system. Blood levels of mercury in foetuses have been associated with small decrease in IQ in low exposures and delayed developmental milestones, brain damage with mental retardation, in-coordination, and inability to move, in higher exposures.

Professor Farai adds that “waste has to be properly managed to protect the environment. The problem with CFLs arises when they are not properly disposed of. There should be a formal way of managing and disposing wastes else we would overburden our environment.”

Experts say consumers should exercise caution regarding where and how they install CFLs in their homes; they should avoid putting them in lamps likely to be sent crashing to the floor by someone knocking them from a side table or tripping over electrical cords. They also call for proper recycling procedure which should be developed by the Nigerian government or adapted from used procedures in advanced nations.

In spite of the potential dangers associated with CFLs, the good news is that CFLs are not the only energy-efficient bulbs out there. There are also light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are mercury-free.


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