Energy-efficient CFL bulbs cause skin damage, say researchers

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New research funded by the National Science Foundation has scientists warning consumers about the potentially harmful effects energy-saving CFL light bulbs can have on skin.

The warning comes based on a study conducted by Stony Brook University and New York State Stem Cell Science — published in the June issue of Photochemistry and Photobiology — which looked at whether and how the invisible UV rays CFL bulbs emit affect the skin.

Based on the research, scientists concluded that CFL light bulbs can be harmful to healthy skin cells.

“Our study revealed that the response of healthy skin cells to UV emitted from CFL bulbs is consistent with damage from ultraviolet radiation,” said lead researcher Miriam Rafailovich, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stony Brook University, in New York, in a statement. “Skin cell damage was further enhanced when low dosages of TiO2 nanoparticles were introduced to the skin cells prior to exposure.”

According to Rafailovich, with or without TiO2 (a chemical found in sunblock), incandescent bulbs of the same light intensity had zero effects on healthy skin.

The scientists found that cracks in the CFL bulbs phosphor coatings yielded significant levels of UVC and UVA in all of the bulbs — purchased in different locations across two counties — they examined.

With high levels of ultraviolet radiation present, the researchers delved into how the exposure affected the skin. According to the findings, skin damage from exposure to CFLs was consistent with harm caused by ultraviolet radiation.

“Despite their large energy savings, consumers should be careful when using compact fluorescent light bulbs,” said Rafailovich. “Our research shows that it is best to avoid using them at close distances and that they are safest when placed behind an additional glass cover.”

The research was inspired by a similar 2008 European study conducted by the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks which found a potential for skin damage and suggested the use of double-enveloped bulbs as a mitigation tool.

CFLs have been the source of political rumblings since 2007 when Congress approved new energy standards that would have started to phase out the traditional incandescent light bulb in favor of the energy-efficient CFL bulb this year. In December, Congress offered a provision to prevent the Department of Energy from enforcing the standards for nine months. The regulation is still on the books.

The restriction on consumer choice has represented a political battle cry for Tea Partiers and conservatives alike who view the regulation as an infringement on individual liberty. Environmentalists and CFL proponents argue the bulbs are environmentally friendly and economically efficient.

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Caroline May