Right-wing media outlets are seizing on a recent study to claim that ultraviolet (UV) emissions from compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) pose a threat to human health and may even cause skin cancer. But experts agree that under normal conditions CFLs are perfectly safe, and the study's author says that there is "no link" between CFLs and cancer.
A study published in the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology measured the effect of CFLs at distances of 2.5, 7.5 and 35 centimeters (0.98 to 13.78 inches) away from skin cells and found that "the response of healthy skin cells to UV emitted from CFL bulbs is consistent with damage from ultraviolet radiation." It concluded that "it is best to avoid using them at close distances and that they are safest when placed behind an additional glass cover."
The UV risk is easily eliminated by purchasing double-envelope CFLs, using a lampshade, or staying more than a foot away from an exposed bulb.
Nevertheless, conservative media outlets have exaggerated these findings to once again portray CFL bulbs as unsafe. During a Fox & Friends news brief on the study, Gretchen Carlson reported that CFLs "could be bad for people," and Brian Kilmeade exclaimed: "Goodbye epidermis!" And a Newsmax headline declared that "Energy-Saving Light Bulbs Can Cause Skin Cancer."
But Dr. Tatsiana Mironava, co-author of the study, told Media Matters that "there is no link in scientific literature between CFL exposure and cancer." And dermatologist Dr. Howard Brooks explained that CFLs emit "such a small amount" of UV rays that they "shouldn't be a risk." Dr. Brooks said that skin damage would only be a concern after "prolonged exposure," such as sitting directly underneath a desk lamp for an extended period of time.
This is consistent with previous research including a recent European Commission report which found that while CFLs can exacerbate certain skin conditions, with normal use they do not pose a risk to healthy people:
In general, the probability that artificial lighting for visibility purposes induces any acute pathologic conditions is low, since the levels of maximum exposure are normally much lower than those where such effects are known to occur in healthy people and certainly much lower than in typical summer daylight.
A common exposure situation, such as most household lighting, would involve an illumination level which is so low that exposure to potentially hazardous radiation is considered negligible.
But the right-wing media never passes up an opportunity to spread fear about energy-efficient light bulbs. Before efficiency standards took effect in January, conservative outlets repeatedly claimed that mercury-filled CFLs posed a serious health risk even though the mercury exposure from broken CFLs is comparable to eating tuna, and if disposed of properly it is not a safety hazard. At the same time, they denied that mercury emissions from coal, which dwarfs the amount of mercury in CFLs, poses public health risks.