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The 60-Watt Sugar Cone

Saturday I drove my biodiesel VW Jetta to the Co-op for some organic fruits and veggies, sorted my recycling and installed new compact fluorescent bulbs.


Saturday I drove my biodiesel VW Jetta to the Co-op for some organic fruits and veggies, sorted my recycling and installed new compact fluorescent bulbs. Why-o-why do I now, days later, feel that something is amiss? Am I merely moping after watching my Packers lose on Sunday, or are these new light bulbs not all they're cracked up to be? My biggest concern is that the energy savings is not worth the potential health risk. Isn't fluorescent lighting generally bad?

—DJC, Boise

It's not common knowledge, but I'm all about fighting global warming. Years back, I freely offered the government my suggestion to float used Styrofoam packing peanuts all around the Arctic Circle to reflect back the sunlight. In my view, they would be a perfect replacement for those melty old ice caps—I was surprised to receive no support. And, sure, I'll admit my next proposal for the big exhaust fan positioned over the ozone hole was not well thought out, but did I really deserve a security escort out of the Senate building for the "Drive With Your AC Running and Windows Open" initiative?

Using similar reasoning, the resemblance of a compact fluorescent lamp to a Dairy Queen soft-serve cone is a major part of its climate cooling effect (I should be careful here; fans of The Secret may take me seriously). Although they've been around for about 20 years, it is only recently that CFLs have become widely accepted as one small step in improving the global-warming/carbon-emission problem. Compared to standard incandescent bulbs, compact fluorescents use about a quarter of the energy for equivalent light output and can last 10 to 15 times longer. These clear advantages have some countries, such as Australia and Ireland, announcing intentions to ban incandescent bulbs within a few years.

Until your letter, I was blissfully unaware of any real drawbacks to CFLs—other than my own difficulty jamming them into fixtures. Apparently, the current manufacture of these bulbs—with their multiple parts, internal electronics and heavy plastic packaging—seems to use significantly more energy and more resources, while creating more pollution, than traditional incandescents. Equally concerning, the bulbs contain mercury, though not a large amount. Still, this makes end-of-life disposal a logistical (and energy consuming) problem, since throwing them into the regular garbage will ultimately release the toxic metal into the environment. What's worse is if they break during your own fixture-jamming activities; careful cleanup is critical and mildly hazardous.

The new twisty CFLs, as well as the old tubular office fluorescents, produce light by electrically exciting a powdery, white phosphor coating inside them. This requires production of ultraviolet light, the same rays that can damage skin. About 5 percent of fluorescent light's output is UV, which escapes past the phosphor and glass. Some especially sensitive people believe that exposure to any fluorescent light causes them headaches, fatigue, an inability to concentrate or worse. These complaints may actually be attributed to the earlier phosphor formulations (and the unpleasant colors they create) or the not-so-subtle flickering that old-style bulbs often produce. Ultimately, though, the most seemingly credible indictment of fluorescent light was a short-lived scare, 25 years ago, regarding those escaping UV rays.

In 1982, the authors of a study published in The Lancet demonstrated a significant increase in malignant melanoma among women who worked in fluorescently lit offices. Over the next five years or so (while office workers presumably set up tarps), several other studies tried to reproduce these results. That feat was never accomplished. It seems the original findings were flawed—another example of the danger of relying on any single research study. Acrylic diffusers (those brittle panels over ceiling fixtures) block nearly all UV light. Additionally, the distance above workers that these lights are usually installed probably explains the lack of UV-related health effects. Other complaints, like fatigue and mind wandering, have never been demonstrated—or even mentioned—in recognized medical literature. Perhaps Mr. Coffee may offer some assistance here; his office is in the break room.

Global considerations aside, fluorescent light has little associated risk. New formulations of phosphor have resulted in a more natural-seeming light, with improved color rendering and less UV leakage. In CFLs at least, replacement of the buzzing magnetic ballasts with electronic ones has largely eliminated flicker. And lately, manufacturers have begun voluntarily lowering mercury content at the same time retailers have agreed to provide recycling. All my idea, of course. It's amazing how quickly crusades can be undertaken once a guy finally learns to spell "fluorescent."

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send discarded office sombreros and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).