Are the new light bulbs a health risk?

Study to examine if what’s good for the environment is bad for people

Health Canada is reviewing the safety of energy-saving light bulbs to determine whether the amount of UV light and electromagnetic radiation they emit is safe. The federal government launched its study on compact fluorescent lights in December, following several public health warnings by British medical professionals.

British health officials have warned that the new bulbs could worsen existing skin conditions, like eczema and dermatitis. Skin disorders that are photosensitive could react to the more intense light of fluorescent bulbs, which emit UV rays similar to outdoor exposure levels on a sunny day. Britain’s Health Protection Agency now recommends that people should not be closer than 30 centimetres from the energy-saving variety for more than one hour per day.

Health Canada says the reason for the study was the increased use of the energy-saving bulbs. Any relation to the public health warnings in Britain is purely coincidental, says Roberta Bradley, Health Canada’s director of consumer and clinical radiation. The final results will be released in the summer 2009 or early fall.

There are also concerns that the low-energy bulbs could be linked to headaches, nausea and seizures in people with epilepsy. The British charity Epilepsy Action says that some people with the condition have complained of dizziness, loss of focus and discomfort after being exposed to light from the energy-saving bulbs. The cause of the problem is not known as the bulbs do not flicker at the rate that would normally cause ill effects. “We have received calls from a number of people who believe they are feeling unwell, in terms of headaches, nausea, seizures,” says Keeley Eastwood, spokesperson for Epilepsy Action, in an interview with Maclean’s. “But epilepsy has so many triggers and causes—it’s really hard to pinpoint what causes it.”

The British government is set to ban incandescent lights. The traditional bulbs will be phased out by 2011, one year before similar legislation comes into effect in Canada. However, a number of interest groups are calling for exemption from the new laws. The British Association of Dermatologists says persons with light sensitive conditions must be able to continue using the traditional bulbs, even after the nation-wide ban. Epilepsy groups may also demand exemptions depending on the results of on-going research on fluorescents, says Eastwood.

The Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA) is waiting to find out the results of the Health Canada study before taking any action. If people need to keep a certain distance from the low energy bulbs, that will affect how they should be used at work and home, says Michelle Albagli, executive director of the CDA, in an interview with Maclean’s. “The CDA is watching with great interest. We would like to know if these light bulbs could be dangerous.”