The news world is abuzz this week with the news that compact fluorescent bulbs may cause migraine headaches. At least 100 news stories have been posted on the topic in the last two days. Make it 101.
But is it really newsworthy? Before consumers get up in arms, consider that there's no data to back up the claim. The origin of the international news phenomenon is a third-hand account from a handful of people who perceive a problem that hasn't been tested.
Not withstanding its breathless headline ("Green light bulbs 'can bring on a migraine attack'), the Telegraph reported that the story originated with calls the Migraine Action Association received from its members, stating concern about Britain's impending ban of the incandescent bulb. President Bush signed an energy bill last month that will require the phasing out of incandescent bulbs by 2012 in the U.S., too.
"We have not published a study linking CFLs and migraine," Karen Manning, head of membership support for the Migraine Action Association, told The Daily Green. "The recent media activity has been in response to anecdotal reports we have received from many migraine sufferers who have experienced adverse health effects following introducing low energy light bulbs into their homes. I am not aware of any scientific evidence on this subject, but as an Association we would welcome this to confirm there are real health issues affecting migraine sufferers."
Bulb manufacturers have denied any link to migraine headaches, and some have pointed out that compact fluorescents may even flicker less than incandescent bulbs.
This isn't the first time the compact fluorescent bulb has been maligned for being too good to be true. When opposition of this kind arises, it's good to view it with a healthy level of skepticism. The Daily Green even coined a term for this situation, when the public becomes scared of a new environmentally benign technology: Greenfear.
For instance, another story sweeping across the Internet today raises the old fear about mercury in CFL bulbs. Mercury is a legitimate thing to be concerned about, since it can interrupt the normal development of the brain if fetuses or children are exposed to it in its toxic form, methylmercury. And people should heed recommendations designed to make the cleanup of broken bulbs safe.
But the amount of mercury in each bulb is tiny, and many agree that the amount of toxic mercury produced by the bulbs is actually less than their counterparts, even though incandescents contain no mercury.
How can that be? Because the main source of mercury is from coal-fired power plants, and compact fluorescent light bulbs require much less electricity, and last much longer, than the incandescent bulbs that served us so well since Thomas Edison invented them a century ago. Less electricity used means less mercury spewed into the atmosphere. (Not to mention that mercury only becomes toxic after sitting in muddy sediments, where fish can be exposed to it; people are generally exposed from eating fish.)
It is these energy savings, and the pollution reduction that comes along with it, that has Britain, the U.S., Australia and other nations banning incandescent bulbs in favor of compact fluorescents and LEDs (light emitting diodes). An Energy Star-rated compact fluorescent bulb may cost more than an incandescent, but it uses about 75% less energy and lasts up to 10 times longer, resulting in a savings of $30 per bulb, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. If every American home replaced just one bulb, it would reduce as much carbon dioxide pollution as is produced by 800,000 cars.
Being wary of unintended consequences is smart whenever a new product breaks out from its niche and into the mainstream. The environmental movement has often identified these unintended consequences (PCBs great insulators, if it weren't for the cancer and birth defects) and worked to remove toxic products from the American marketplace.
In the case of CFL migraines, however, the evidence is thin. And for anyone concerned about that worldwide headache called global warming, the benefits of switching to a new bulb are substantial.
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