The dark side of energy-saving light bulbs

Published: November 18, 2012
Beware of the negative consquences. CREATIVE COMMON

Beware of the negative consquences. CREATIVE COMMON


Recently, Mr R was spending a holiday afternoon at home, rearranging the setting of his lounge with a couple of man-servants, when a small accident took place. A large bag had dropped to the floor and something inside seemed to have broken. With great trepidation, Mr R stepped forward hoping against hope, to disconfirm his fear. There it was. A broken energy-saver. And then, to the great amusement of his man-servants, Mr R was fleeing.

Most of us in Pakistan tend to think of light-bulbs as something of a monolith. Initially, they were the warm, orange-light emitting bulbs that would fuse eventually, and then in the last decade ostensibly newer ‘variations’ emerged with energy-saving potential, funky designs and long-lasting life-spans.

Of the newer varieties, most of us prefer the ‘warm-white’ type (which the aesthetically-motivated of us are suspicious isn’t quite the same thing as the original) and don’t like so much the ‘cool daylight’ ones.

Let’s recap. There are actually two types of light-bulbs: there is the original incandescent bulb that Thomas Edison invented with the wonderful orange glow we all grew up with, and then there are the newer energy-saving ‘CFLs’ — compact fluorescent lights — which are actually based on the same technology that tube-lights use. And, according to a publication by light researcher Michaele Wynn-Jones in The Guardian, these CFLs should carry a visible health warning. That’s because fluorescent technology wreaks havoc on the psychophysiology of living organisms to such an extent that Wynn-Jones identifies their use with the (previously) unexplained rise of suicide cases in prisons in the UK.

According to Wynn-Jones, some fluorescent bulbs can cause depletion of key neuro-chemicals in humans, such as serotonin and melatonin. Newer research validates this claim while also showing that exposure to the ‘cool daylight’ type will also serve to increase heart rate and body temperature. This has two effects:

• Constant exposure to CFLs, particularly at the expense of sunlight, can precipitate a type of depression known as ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’, commonly referred to as ‘winter blues’

• It can completely halt and even reverse the physiological changes that are responsible for inducing sleep, instead giving your body what a study in the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Basel identifies as comparable to a dose of caffeine.

Thus, bulbs are legally banned in hospitals in Germany.

But that is not the half of it. In the midst of a raging debate in the US that has manifested in a government divide, an article in MSN health identifies that the supposedly insignificant amount of mercury, which is known to cause brain and kidney damage, inside all CFLs is enough to “contaminate upto 6,000 gallons of water.” In fact, the procedure outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate a broken CFL is so precarious and exhaustive that people in the US rely on special cleaning services to come in and dispose off the bulb in a picture that resembles “the site of a hazardous material accident” — breathing apparatus, air-tight plastic seals and all!

Former hopeful for the US 2012 presidential elections Michele Bachmann famously vowed to remove all CFLs from the White House.

Other research of interest:

• Under fluorescent lighting, one’s evaluation of the immediate space has been demonstrated to ‘evoke a negative response pattern.’ Ask someone to rate a work of art underneath sunlight, and then do the same under artificial lighting, particularly ‘cool daylight.’ The response is dismal and this doesn’t exclude interpersonal evaluations!

• The nutritional quality of foods, such as olive oil, has been shown to deteriorate significantly when stored underneath fluorescent lighting.

• Visual discomfort is greatly increased and there is preliminary evidence to indicate that the inherent flicker in fluorescent lighting can be a causal factor for people who read extensively underneath artificial lighting to develop early cases of ‘presbyopia’ or ‘farsightedness.’

Energy-savers have a dark side. And for the many of us headed back home on the canal with the new CFLs installed, not surprisingly a few seconds later into the night every day, we are right in the midst of it.

The author is involved in a project called Scholars by Profession. Please visit their Facebook page for further details.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 19th, 2012.          

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Salman
    Nov 18, 2012 - 8:20PM

    Thanks! Informational article but add some sources to put some perspective and context.


  • Aviator
    Nov 18, 2012 - 9:48PM

    I’ve been using CFLs for years, even broken a bulb, but I’m still alive! :) A lot of scare mongering if you ask me!


  • Rizwan
    Nov 18, 2012 - 10:03PM

    Aren’t the new lights on the canal LEDs? Also, interesting information here, I had no idea.


  • Nov 18, 2012 - 10:12PM

    Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. He improved upon it. Because of that basic mistake I can’t trust anything else written in this article.


  • A. Khan
    Nov 19, 2012 - 1:19AM

    Does the author not realize that tube lights use the same technology as CFLs yet one is being touted as unsafe and the other is widely used in Pakistan since ages ? This is a classic case of picking up a story from a foreign news feed and adding your two cents worth but without doing proper research nor understanding the subject.


  • Haris H. Seyal
    Nov 19, 2012 - 5:26AM


    Assalam ‘alaikum Rizwan,

    To be honest I’m going to have to confirm. LEDs are extremely expensive and according to my knowledge are only being installed on a mass-scale in the first-world; it’s only in places like Germany and Austria that they’ve begun to replace CFLs.


  • Jalil Ahmed
    Nov 19, 2012 - 9:27AM

    @A. Khan: Oh Im sure it does do something to the brain. After all, look at the likes of Zaid Hamid and the millions others who are ready to believe him !


  • ET
    Nov 19, 2012 - 10:20AM

    @author: Most of your comparisons are against daylight. That doesn’t make any sense. Had your data pointed out differences b/w CFL, Incandescents, Edison Bulbs, Halogens and LEDs it would’ve been fair. To be honest artificial lighting comprises of all the kinds of lighting i mentioned above, why is there a need to single out only CFLs?

    FYI. Please read the facts at EPA website.

    Btw is author familiar with the fact that in USA they have put up legislation to ban 100W edison light bulbs? and they are replacing them with CFLs and LEDs. (Yes you are right LEDs are expensive and difficult to control for dimming as well).


  • Haris H. Seyal
    Nov 19, 2012 - 12:56PM

    Assalam ‘alaikum readers,

    The bibiliography for this piece was not going through in the form of a comment despite repeated attempts probably because it was too large. I’ve now put it up on the Facebook page for all who want to see.


    The objective of this article was quite straightforward: to build on Wynn-Jones’ research that ‘fluorescent lighting was never meant to come into general use’ and present that the latter has quite arguably been amongst the biggest mistakes in the history of lighting.

    Your provided link has not merely already been read, but also been responded to in an earlier comment on our Facebook page.

    Yes, the author is familiar with that legislation – it is referred to as the ‘socialization of the light bulb’ and is being contested by Michele Bachmann in the form of the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act. Even the corporate sector has gotten in on the act:

    I repeat, the objective of the article is to convince the reader that using CFLs as a transition from the old incandescent to new incandescent or LEDs is not in their interest under any circumstances whatsoever.

    All-in-all, SBP has done a good job. Thank you.


  • Haris H. Seyal
    Nov 19, 2012 - 1:28PM


    Assalam ‘alaikum,

    We should sue these fraudsters then!

    Although, it would be kind of self-defeating. You know, considering that the original incandescent failed to work, and that the mass-produced incandescent bulb we do use is actually Edison’s, making historians quite rightly credit the invention to him.


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