Dark Days for Low Energy Light Bulbs

7th January 2008
This month shops in the UK will begin to phase out traditional tungsten bulbs as part of a government plan to replace them completely by 2011 and save 5m tonnes of carbon emissions a year. However the current crop of low energy light bulbs are coming under criticism for causing skin complaints and migraines, releasing Mercury into the environment on disposal and not being as energy efficient as new LED equivalents.

A typical low energy light bulb is said to contain between six and eight miligrammes of mercury. If one is smashed in a home the room should be vacated for at least 15 minutes, the bulb cleared wearing rubber gloves, put in a sealed plastic bag and taken to the local council for disposal. Unbroken bulbs can also be taken back to the retailer if the owner is a member of the Distributor Takeback Scheme.

Greenpeace has called for a public information campaign to advise people how to dispose of low energy light bulbs safely, arguing that “Rather than being worried about the mercury these light bulbs contain, the general public should be reassured that using them will actually reduce the amount of mercury overall in our atmosphere.”

Further health concerns have come from the bulbs exacerbating of skin conditions in the estimated 100,000 people in the UK with photosensitive skin including suffers of lupus, Xeroderma Pigmentation, eczema and dermatitis.

There have also been claims that the bulbs cause migraines, affect ME suffers and increase the risk of seizures in people with epilepsy and a growing number of charities including Spectrum and the British Association of Dermatologists are calling for exemptions to allow those affected to continue using traditional bulbs.

But perhaps the biggest threat to the traditional energy saving light bulb comes from a new type of Light Emitting Diode (LED) developed by Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities.

LED’s use less power than energy efficient light bulbs currently available but have not historically been powerful enough to be cheaply produced for the mass market. The Scottish scientists have overcome this by decreasing the costs and increasing the speed of Nano-imprint lithography, the process of putting microscopic holes in the LED’s to make them brighter, and suitable for home use.

Dr Faiz Rahman, who is leading the project, said: “This means the days of the humble light-bulb could soon be over.”

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2009


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