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The Health Risks Of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

engineering of compact flurescent light bulbs

Engineering of the compact fluorescent light bulbs

Canadian federal government has adopted a national standard for lighting efficiency that came into effect in 2014. Most, if not all conventional, incandescent light bulbs do not meet the required performance level. The objective was to make sure that more efficient bulbs such as Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs), LED lights, enhanced halogens, and others, are used in Canada. So CFLs become broadly available in all home improvement stores.

Because of that, more and more Ontarians are replacing their incandescent light bulbs with more energy-efficient products, such as compact fluorescent lamps.

What are compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs)?

CFLs are a type of fluorescent lamp that fits into many existing incandescent light fixtures, including floor and table lamps frequently found in households. CFLs are very energy efficient, using one-quarter or less, of the energy compared to traditional incandescent bulbs. CFLs also have a very long lifespan, typically 10,000- 15,000 hours compared to the 700 – 2,000 hours for a standard incandescent bulb.

When the lamp is turned on, the mercury vaporizes inside the lamp and becomes ‘excited’ by the high voltage. Then the mercury atoms excite the phosphor coating inside the lamp, which emits the light you see.

The energy efficiency of CFLs may be significant, but unlike traditional light bulbs, their use has also raised health concerns.

Canadians have begun to question their safety, including the level of UV emissions, the electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) they create, and the presence of mercury in the lamps.

In reply to concerns, Health Canada has conducted UV radiation and EMF examination on a variety of CFL bulbs and submitted a final report outlining the conclusion to Natural Resources Canada.

Clip Art Graphic of a Yellow Residential House Cartoon Character

What do CFLs emit?

Ultraviolet Radiation

We are exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from a diversity of natural and man-made origins, including the sun, tanning equipment, and fluorescent lights. The old incandescent lights bulbs that have been used in the past also release UV radiation.

UV can be helpful: it is used to kill germs, and it is needed to form vitamin D in our bodies. Overexposure to UV has been associated with sunburns, early skin aging, skin cancer and problems with eyes.

The outcome of the Health Canada examination showed that the quantity of UV generated is so small that it is not considered hazardous to your health when CFLs are used at a distance of 30 cm or more. Health Canada advises that people keep this minimum distance between themselves and any light source. They also concluded that when CFLs are used daily, exposure should be restricted to no longer than three continuous hours.

Although the quantity of ultraviolet light emitted by CFLs poses no difficulty for the ordinary person, some people are very sensitive to ultraviolet light and may be affected by the volume of UV produced by CFLs.

Electric And Magnetic Fields

Electric and magnetic fields encircle all electrical devices from cell phones to outdoor power lines. You cannot see or feel them. They form whenever you plug a lamp or an appliance into an outlet, even if it is not turned on. The higher the voltage, the stronger the electric field. The greater the current, the stronger the magnetic field.

Health Canada has made measurements of the Electric and magnetic field at 20 centimetres from the CFL lamps, and when compared to departmental and international science-based guidelines, the levels of emissions are well below the maximum levels of exposure. Health Canada does not consider the EMFs from CFLs to be a health risk. This conclusion is in line with the current international scientific opinion.


Mercury is the only existing element that produces the UV wavelengths needed to make CFLs work. While mercury is a highly toxic substance, only a very small amount is used in a CFL, about the amount to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. There is no risk to your health when the lamps are unbroken. Even when a CFL is broken, there is a very small risk to your health, unless you mishandle it, store it carelessly or inhale the vapour.

cfl lights comparison

Light bulbs comparison

How To Minimize Your Risk

Although CFLs are deemed safe to use, here are some measures you can take to protect you and your family:

  • Always handle CFLs delicately when installing and removing them.
  • Buy CFLs that are marked low UV.
  • Buy CFLs that have a glass cover already added, which will help further filter out UV radiation.
  • Increase the distance you are from the CFL, as this will reduce the level of UV exposure.

If you break a CFL, follow these directions for clean-up:

  1. Remove people and pets from the room throughout the clean-up process.
  2. Don’t step on broken glass.
  3. Ventilate the area before starting the clean-up by opening windows and doors.
  4. Do not use a vacuum cleaner to clean up the breakage. It will spread the mercury vapour and dust throughout the room and may pollute the vacuum.
  5. Wear disposable gloves to avoid contact with mercury and to prevent the cuts.
  6. Scoop or sweep up the broken pieces and debris with two pieces of stiff paper or cardboard.
  7. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape or masking tape, to pick up any remaining fine glass or powder.
  8. Wipe the area with a damp paper towel, cloth or disposable wet wipe to remove any residual particles.
  9. Lace the broken glass and clean-up materials in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid to further minimize the release of mercury vapour.
  10. Immediately place waste material outside of the building in a protected area away from children.
  11. Dispose of the waste at a household hazardous waste location as soon as possible.
  12. Do not dispose of the waste in your household trash.
  13. Wash your hands after storing and disposing of waste.
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