This post is by John Balbus, M.D., M.P.H., Chief Health Scientist at Environmental Defense.
On February 3, Parade published a misleading Medical Alert column with the headline "Bright Lights, Bad Headache?" by Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld. It starts with a list of unsubstantiated claims:
As energy-saving fluorescent lightbulbs become standard, new research suggests some dangers: Flickering bulbs have been reported to precipitate migraines or even seizures, though manufacturers say the new models have been improved. Fluorescent light also can aggravate skin rashes in people with lupus, eczema, dermatitis or porphyria.
Environmental Defense could find no published scientific studies demonstrating that compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) trigger migraines or seizures. And unlike older fluorescent tube lights, modern CFLs with electronic ballasts don’t flicker.
Rosenfeld's statement about fluorescent light harming people also is highly misleading. While there is a theoretical risk to people with severe photosensitive skin diseases from the small amount of ultraviolet light emitted by CFLs, most people with eczema – a very common disease – have no such photosensitivity. People who are unable to tolerate any sunlight due to photosensitivity may be advised to avoid additional exposure to the small amount of ultraviolet light from CFLs, but this is only a subset of people with eczema and lupus.
The piece then mentions that CFLs contain mercury. This is true, but the amount of mercury in a typical CFL is very small, only 4 to 5 milligrams, and newer bulbs have even less. This is almost one thousand times less than what used to be in mercury thermometers. While people certainly should avoid exposing themselves to the mercury from a CFL if it breaks (see my previous post for how to properly dispose of CFLs), the exposure from a single broken bulb is comparable to the mercury in a few cans of tuna, and would not be expected to cause ill effects.
Articles like "Bright Lights, Bad Headache?" that make serious claims of harm from CFLs need to substantiate those claims with solid science. Why? Because CFLs have the potential to dramatically reduce energy use, and coal-generated electricity releases much more mercury (and other toxic pollution) than CFLs.
Parade does a disservice to its readers and the environment by propagating inaccuracies, half-truths and misleading statements. Instead of a medical alert, it should be issuing a junk science alert and tracking down the facts.