Bulb Battles

Eco-friendly lightbulbs may trigger migraines and other ills in sensitive people.

By Rich Mintzer

September 2012


Beginning next month, it will be illegal to make or import 100–watt incandescent light bulbs in the US. But at least one survey shows that many consumers oppose the ban. At issue are alternatives such as the longer-lasting light emitting diode, or LED, and compact fluorescent light, or CFL, bulbs. Why the uproar?

The concerns come from people who have difficulty adjusting to the bright new bulbs. “Incandescent lamps produce light in a natural way, the same as firelight,” explains lighting design director Kevan Shaw of Edinburgh, Scotland, who maintains a website, www.savethebulb.com. “It is a source akin to that with which humans have evolved. These other sources will cause problems for humans that incandescent lamps do not.”

Sarah Velesnack, MD, of Alberta, Canada, says she and her two daughters are sensitive to light. “Driving at night is a challenge with more cars having extremely bright LED headlamps,” Velesnack says. “Even our local theater and church have switched to LED spotlights. Visiting friends who use CFLs can also be very difficult.”

Neurologist Lawrence Newman, MD, of The Headache Institute at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, says his patients have similar complaints. “The CFLs go on and the migraine begins,” says Newman, “and that includes people who normally don’t get migraines from lights.”

A study for Natural Resources Canada revealed that fluorescents could intensify light sensitivity, triggering migraines in some people. Another study by the UK Migraine Action Association found these lights can cause nausea, dizziness and pain for those with lupus. And accounts of discomfort prompted California school officials to allow students to take exams under non-florescent lighting.

The color spectrum helps explain the problem. We see light waves that appear to us as the colors of the rainbow; each color in the spectrum has a different wavelength. Seen together, all of the colors make white light.

Studies have shown that people may have trouble with certain wavelengths. For example, specific wavelengths may not be processed due to problems with the eye’s retina, resulting in color blindness. Bulbs like the blue LEDs, which have a very long wavelength, appear much brighter to the human eye in general; this brightness can be distracting, even blinding, especially at night.

Thirty years ago, California-based school psychologist Helen Irlen tested adults who struggled to read. She found that certain color wavelengths made words or letters appear skewed and that blocking out such colors in the spectrum using colored overlays or lenses could eliminate the problem.

Today Irlen opposes banning incandescent bulbs. “So many clients are worried that they won’t have a choice but to have them in their homes,” says Irlen, who posted a petition opposing the ban on her website www.irlen.com.

To help offset the problems that the new bulbs may bring, try minimizing their effects by using glare guards on computers and lamps or redirecting light off of dark surfaces. Look for LEDs in colors that do not bother your eyes. Look into custom-tinted lenses to negate the problematic colors. Try halogen lighting (which is not always as easy to find). Or stock up on incandescent bulbs before they become obsolete.

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