Thursday, Aug. 31st 2017

4 Health Risks of Fluorescent Lighting

Dangers of Fluorescent Lighting

Over the past few decades, an antibacterial chemical known as triclosan slowly infiltrated our lives. Starting as a hospital scrub in the 1970s, it began showing up in shampoos, cleaning supplies, hand soaps, even toothpaste. By 2000 it was already in 75 percent of liquid soaps, and by 2014, it could be found on the ingredient label of more than 2,000 consumer products.

Based on those stats, it would appear that this new and improved cleaning chemical was a rousing success. Not so. In fact, just last fall, the FDA issued a final rule that bans antibacterial soaps and body washes containing triclosan from being marketed because the chemical is linked to serious health issues and actually causes cancer in mice.

What we thought was another mark of progress turned out to be a slight misstep. Consumer items thought to be harmless are full of such examples. (Ask your parents or grandparents about those old commercials showing Fred Flintstone smoking a Winston.) But even if the march of progress isn’t always a straight line, the important thing is learning from those past mistakes and constantly improving.

For decades, the fluorescent bulb has reigned supreme as an affordable and energy-efficient alternative to incandescent in our offices. And because lighting and HVAC are the biggest energy suckers in the average commercial building, the fluorescent was hailed as a big step forward in our energy progress. Indeed, it was: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey, lighting consumed only 10 percent of all electricity in 2012, down from 21 percent in 2003.

But what if, like triclosan, the benefits of fluorescent lighting become less impressive when we consider the dangers that have since been uncovered?

The danger in the tube

Fluorescents produce light when an electric current excites mercury vapor inside the glass tube. That vapor produces a short-wave ultraviolet light that causes the phosphor coating that lines the inside of the tube to glow. But while these bulbs are much more energy-efficient than their incandescent predecessors, they bring with them a variety of potential health risks:

Migraine headaches – While doctors have found no proof that fluorescents cause migraines, there is some evidence that they may exacerbate the problem for those who already suffer from occasional migraines or who are prone to get headaches. The reason is because the electric current that reacts with the mercury vapor is not constant, but instead pulses on and off very quickly. This flicker, whether you perceive it or not, has been linked to increased migraines and even seizures in some people.

Eye disease – UV light can not only damage your skin but your eyes as well. A 2011 study estimated that some fluorescent lights emit UV radiation outside of the safe range for our eyes, and may increase UV-related eye diseases by 12 percent, and cause cataracts and pterygia (a growth of fleshy tissue on the conjunctiva).

Potential UV radiation leaks – Look closely at a fluorescent bulb and you might see them: hairline cracks in the phosphor coating that lines the inside of the tubes. Those cracks allow UV radiation to leak out, and the more damaged the bulb, the greater the chance for radiation damage to your body. While straight fluorescent tubes are usually less prone to damage than their spiral compact cousin, the CFL, the risk is always present.

Mercury exposure – Breaking any kind of light bulb makes a mess, but with a fluorescent it also means mercury vapors. In fact, the mercury, which is a neurotoxin that can cause a variety of damaging effects on your health, can linger for up to four hours after the glass is swept up, according to one study. The authors noted: “Indoor air concentration of mercury vapor may exceed toxicological thresholds of concern such as the acute Reference Exposure Limit (REL) for mercury vapor set by the Environmental Protection Agency of California.”

A safer alternative

The good news is that the evolution of lighting has taken another step forward. Unlike fluorescents, LEDs produce little to no UV radiation, they contain no mercury, and they won’t flicker while you work. Best of all, they are even more energy-efficient, which means you can keep all of the benefits of fluorescent without any of the health dangers.

Consider a lighting retrofit as a positive step for your bottom line and your employees’ health. (And be sure to check for triclosan in the hand soap at the same time.)

Nelson Struewe is vice president of sales at LED2, a manufacturer and seller of indoor and outdoor commercial LED lighting products. What health risks concern you at your facility? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page or on Twitter @LED2.


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