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Author Topic: CFL energy saving lightbulbs, toxic chemicals and the need to see daylight  (Read 6985 times)

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Offline kat

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I was reading an article from The Telegraph about a recent study into the harmful effects caused by CFL energy-saving light bulbs by a German research laboratory; Alab Laboratories in Berlin. Now I'm sure that many of you reading this may have at least one or two of these new CFL energy saving light bulbs, I do, but not for any spuriously "green" reasons - I've have a number of full-spectrum daylight bulbs because they're pretty much an essential tool for both traditional and digital artists where working with colour fidelity is important (screen temperature and ambient light can affect your sense of colour without you realising it).

I don't take their use lightly either, simply because I know what's in them. Mercury. So as of yet (touch wood) I've 'killed' a couple but not broken any. And that seems to be key to this whole "are they poisonous" controversy that surrounds the use of CFL's because according to that article, a government(?) spokesperson used that as a counter argument to the findings of this German laboratory. Not only that, but they also appear to admit that Mercury containing light bulbs were allowed onto the market absent of an appropriate amount of research beforehand ("British experts insisted that more research was needed and urged consumers not to panic. [emphasis added]").

CFL light bulbs are exempt from both European and UK hazardous waste disposal regulations despite Mercury being regarded, legally (some would argue that through the "'colour' of law"), as a hazard waste irrespective of it's quantity. Period. The exemption is a compromise between manufacturers, 'green' groups and regulatory bodies; so long as mercury content does not exceed 5mg per unit there isn't an issue, especially since the various working groups studying CFL's have reported that manufacturers say its not technically or scientifically possible to remove all usage of the compound in spite of the regulations requirements.

Despite this allowance though, CFL's are still regarded as being hazardous materials, which is why you can't drop them in with your household waste; although I can't find any examples of this you could potentially be fined for doing that in the UK because there are a number of interesting Statutory Instruments in place that  provide local councils with the regulatory authority to issue spot fines. I suspect this will also be the case in other EU signatories, and yes, it's coming to North America at some point soon.

The moral of this story? Stockpile the old 'blue' daylight bulbs and/or switch to using low voltage daylight halogen bulbs should you need to work with colour and you're worried about using CFLs and their accomapnaying side-effects ('hum' and 'flicker' being the result of the transformers inside the housing that can't be got rid of).

Some of the reams of additional reading material on this should you be so inclined;
  1. Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER) - Request for an opinion on Mercury in certain Energy-saving Light Bulbs

  2. Stakeholder consultation on adaptation to scientific and technical progress under Directive 2002/95/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment for the purpose of a possible amendment of the Annex.

  3. The List of Wastes (England) Regulations 2005. Schedule 1 The List Of Wastes

    1. Introduction. Sec.5 "'dangerous substance' means any substance that has been or will be classified as dangerous in Directive 67/548/EEC ... 'heavy metal' means any compound of ... mercury"

    2. Index. List Item.20 "Municipal wastes (household waste and similar commercial, industrial and institutional wastes) including separately collected fractions"

      1. 20.01.21 fluorescent tubes and other mercury-containing waste

  4. European Report on Hazardous Substances

    1. Sec.4.1 Exemption Nos. 14 General considerations on mercury in lamps

    2. Sec.5.1 General procedural observations


Offline ratty redemption

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interesting article kat, we have a few of them here and i wasn't previously aware of the mercury in them, which is why i had put them out with our main rubbish when they wore out. the wikipedia page on cfl's suggests disposing of them in glass jars, which sounds sensible as plastic or carboard packaging isn't usually air tight. can we put them out with our recycling in the uk?

edit: here's the wikipedia link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_fluorescent_lamp#Health_issues

the page also mentions the ultraviolet emissions, which i've also heard can happen with halogens? so isn't there a risk of skin cancer if using any of them for long periods of time, or would the lamps have to be really close distance to have any effect like that?

Offline kat

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From what I've read up on this no, they don't pose any particular problems, it's more common for people to be affected by the hum and high frequency flicker which can cause those susceptible to it audio/visual related problems (migraines and so on). The UV that's part of full-spectrum bulbs (which are more expensive that standard CFLs) is an essential part of the light therapy that's used to sort out various Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADs) related issues.

And yes, the Wiki page is correct, 'technically' they are supposed to undergo specialist handling because of their designation as containing hazardous materials. As you would expect pretty much anyone that 'profits' from the forced use of CFLs underplays the potential dangers involved (typically by saying the amount of mercury is equivalent to the top of a ballpoint pen and therefor of negligible concern), the public face of the UK Government is no exception, both Direct.gov and DEFRA suggest letting the room air for 15 minutes of so and (to paraphrase) being careful picking up broken glass (what they don't say is "broken glass contaminated with mercury"). Contrast that with what the EPA has to say about mercury spills over the pond in the USA.

In both instances it's somewhat surprising the see nothing about the fact that Mercury bio-accumulates. Nor is there anything on wearing (latex) gloves or any other protective gear when cleaning up breakages or spills; the talking points used contextually refer to the effects of individual light bulbs and not the dozens that a typical household has in it at any given time, the tens of dozens or even hundreds that may be used over the lifetime of residential occupancy and the number of breakages that would mean on average, especially in a house with rambunctious kids knocking about, banging into things (this add credence to the report by Alab, individual bulbs may be a little concern, but cumulatively their effects may be more noticeable or prominent).

The interesting reason why the UK Governments at least appear to allow the use of CFLs is to do with the way hazardous materials are assessed; they do it based on whether the materials contained are greater than the sum of the parts relative to known toxicological limits. For example, the back light in a laptop screen is considered hazardous waste by itself, but the moment that screen gets put together with other components, the toxic material, by volume, is considered inconsequential relative to the overall volume of the item so it can be deemed 'safe'[ref. Sec.4.2.1, pp31 (study didn't test CFLs but the company behind this study is responsible for the recommendation made to DEFRA and then on to GCHQ which filter back down to local municipal waste facilities [council and privately run] on the handling of hazardous materials in the UK)].

Offline silicone_milk

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I'm surprised to hear that a lot of people still don't know about this. In the U.S., at least, they've been warning us of the mercury content of the CFL bulbs for almost a decade.

I've always just continued to use normal bulbs anyways and do coloring digitally so I can just adjust the calibration of my monitor and the color profile in photoshop.

Offline kat

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In H.R. 6 [110th]: Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 there's apparently language that states by 2012 (or thereabouts) most types of incandescent light bulbs used in US should be phased out (I can't find that reference in the wall of text that bill contains myself AND it's too early in the day to be reading that much hierarchical text but it's apparently in there!) - this is according to various news items on this, Save Our Light Bulbs being the most obvious one I could find. So just like the Eurozone, you'll be forced to use CFLs soon. 5 or 10 years from now they may do the same thing again and force everyone to switch over to LED and OLED technologies which are, by far, much more efficient than CFLs.

On a side note regarding O/LEDs, I'm not too sure what they're like with regards to colour renditioning - I was just reading an article about 'standard' CFLs not rendering 'reds' properly, which is why you often end up having to buy the much more expensive full-spectrum bulbs, I'd imagine that O/LEDs will be the same although by default they're supposed to be 'blue shifted' and closer to natural light.

Offline ratty redemption

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very interesting posts guys.

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