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Flickering Fallacy: The Myth of Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb Headaches

Does the flickering of CFL bulbs cause headaches?
CFL bulb compact Florescent



rmisteadbooker, courtesy Flickr.

Dear EarthTalk: Can those energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs that are popular now cause headaches because of the flickering they do? I converted my whole house over last fall and both my kids were complaining of headaches on and off.
-- Sandy, Eugene, OR

With a switch to energy efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs already in full swing in the U.S. and elsewhere—Australia has banned incandescents, Britain will soon, and the U.S. begins a phase-out of incandescents in 2012—more and more complaints have arisen about the new bulbs causing headaches.

Many experts say that the issue is being overblown, however, that there is no scientific evidence that the bulbs cause headaches and that a kind of hysteria has grown out of a small number of anecdotal reports.

Industry experts acknowledge that day-to-day exposure to older, magnetically ballasted long tube fluorescent bulbs found mostly in industrial and institutional settings could cause headaches due to their noticeable flicker rate. The human brain can detect the 60 cycles per second such older bulbs need to refresh themselves to keep putting out light.

However, modern, electronically ballasted CFLs refresh themselves at between 10,000 and 40,000 cycles per second, rates too fast for the human eye or brain to detect. “As far as I’m aware there is no association between headaches and the use of compact fluorescent lamps,” says Phil Scarbro of Energy Federation Incorporated (EFI), a leading distributor of energy efficiency-related products—including many CFLs.

But Magda Havas, an Environmental & Resource Studies Ph.D. at Canada’s Trent University, says that some CFLs emit radio frequency radiation that can cause fatigue, dizziness, ringing in the ears, eyestrain, even migraines. You can test to see if CFLs in your home give off such radiation, she says, by putting a portable AM radio near one that’s on and listening for extra static the closer you get. She says that such electromagnetic interference should also be of concern to people using cell phones and wireless computers.

Sometimes headaches are due to eyestrain from inadequate lighting. When replacing an incandescent bulb with a CFL, pay attention to the lumens, which indicate the amount of light a bulb gives out (watts measure the energy use of a bulb, not the light generated). A 40-watt incandescent bulb can be replaced by an 11-14 watt CFL because the lumen ouput is approximately the same (490); a 100-watt incandescent can be replaced by a 26-29 watt CFL, both providing about 1,750 lumens. If you’re still skeptical, replace a 40-watt incandescent with a 60-watt equivalent 15-19 watt CFL, which will boost lumens to 900.

Another consideration is color temperature (measured in degrees “Kelvin”). CFLs rated at 2,700 Kelvin give off light in the more pleasing red/yellow end of the color spectrum, closer to that of most incandescents. Bulbs rated at 5,000 Kelvin and above (usually older ones) give off a less pleasing white/blue light.

The Environmental Defense Web site provides a handy chart comparing the watts and lumens of incandescents versus CFLs, along with further discussion about color temperature.

CONTACTS: EFI, www.efi.org; Environmental Defense, www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagid=630.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

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