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That big ball of incandescent gas in the sky isn’t the only source of harmful ultraviolet rays. Stony Brook University scientists say that UV radiation can also escape from cracks in the phosphor coating of compact fluorescent bulbs. In fact, most of the bulbs they examined had chips on their surface, likely because the coating is brittle and has trouble making the tight bends required to make the bulbs compact, according to Miriam Rafailovich, a professor of materials science and engineering at the college and director of the Garcia Center for Polymers at Engineered Interfaces in Long Island, NY.
While the effect of household lighting may not be as acute as say a tanning bed or a day at the beach, Rafailovich’s team found that skin cells in close proximity to a CFL bulb (i.e., less than a foot away) showed comparable damage as those exposed to UV light.
Researchers found that skin cells in close proximity to a CFL bulb showed comparable damage as those exposed to UV light.
Rafailovich, whose study was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, warns that a bulb loses its UV protection if it’s riddled with “bald spots.” To examine the scope of the problem, researchers from Stony Brook purchased a selection of CFL bulbs commercially available in stores across the Suffolk and Nassau county regions of Long Island. Measuring each bulb for levels of UV emissions—while examining for signs of cracks in the phosphor coatings—they found that all the bulbs, regardless of manufacturer, emitted “significant” levels of both UVA and UVC rays as a result of chips in their respective surfaces.
Further, after exposing healthy human skin cells to UV emitted from the bulbs, they discovered that the results were “consistent” with the damage typically caused by UV radiation from the sun. In contrast, exposure to incandescent bulbs of similar strength demonstrated no perceivable skin-cell damage.
“These bulbs are fragile, the phosphor is easily damaged, and possibly dangerous amounts of UV are emitted,” Rafailovich told HealthDay. “Therefore, it’s best not to use these bulbs at close range—less than a couple of feet—or look directly at them.”
While she’s incredulous that this situation has arisen at all—”you should not need suntan lotion to protect you from indoor lighting,” she said—at least one dermatologist believes that the daily application of sunscreen is a prudent way to stave off harmful rays, no matter their origin.
“Everyone should be wearing sunscreen every single day no matter what, because even a short commute from home to work can lead to sun damage over time,” said William Ting, medical director of California Dermatology Care in San Ramon, CA. “And if everyone adheres to that, there’s no reason to be concerned about this issue.”
Darrell Rigel, a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University’s Langone Medical Center points out that most people work in office within 5 to 6 feet of the long, standard fluorescent lights we’re familiar with. “Over the course of a typical work year of 2,000 hours you’d get the equivalent of about 20 minutes of street sun exposure in NYC in September,” he said. “In other words, not a lot. So while more research is needed, at this point I wouldn’t have people panicking about this.”