Let There Be Light—Alternatives to Fluorescent Bulbs

By Cathy Burke, Director of Education

Fluorescent light bulbs have been touted as an easy way to improve the energy efficiency of your home and office. They last approximately ten times longer than standard incandescent light bulbs and use one to two thirds less energy. However, some concerns have been raised about their effect on health. Many fault a lack of natural or full-spectrum light for affecting our internal clocks and contributing to a variety of health problems, including depression, fatigue, and sleep disturbances. Do these concerns have a solid ground?
We have known for years that natural light affects the internal rhythms of the body. Sun coming through our window in the morning signals for the body to wake up, and the evening setting of the sun tells us to wind down and prepare for rest. Because of nature of their jobs, many people work in poorly-lit environments without access to natural light during the day. Some attribute this lack of natural light to conditions such as Seasonal Affected Disorder (a mood disorder with depressive symptoms believed to be caused by inadequate levels of serotonin or melatonin due to insufficient natural lighting exposure), depression, headaches, and others. Because fluorescent lights release only a limited spectrum of light, it’s possible that they contribute to these disorders.
Another common concern about widespread use of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) relates to mercury used for their composition. If a bulb is broken, it could mean direct exposure to mercury, a highly toxic element which can impact the central nervous system, kidneys and the immune system, as well as cause developmental and neurological problems. Further, broken bulbs in landfills can release mercury into the atmosphere causing environmental damage. While recycling of bulbs is encouraged, many may not recycle fluorescent bulbs, potentially causing accidents. While florescent tubes have been used for years in office and overhead lighting, introducing them into homes brings a new level of concern about personal, public and environmental safety.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding CFLs, other options for the use in offices and homes may be more preferable. While the initial costs may be higher, the health benefits and energy savings could be overwhelmingly positive. 
Light Emitting Diode (LED)
LED is a narrow spectrum light that may take the place of florescent lights in providing safe, low-energy lighting options. LEDs:
-         last 10 times longer than CFLs and 100 times longer than incandescent lights. 
-         use less energy to power
-         are highly durable and much more difficult to break than florescent or incandescent bulbs
-         contain no mercury.
Full-Spectrum Light Bulbs
Full-spectrum lights simulate natural lighting to improve the light quality and the body’s response to that light. Many practitioners accept the theory that light therapy using full-spectrum lighting can dramatically affect biological functioning and mood by regulating hormones and body chemistry. Sold in the same shape as CFLs, full-spectrum bulbs last for the duration of 13 standard bulbs and use less than 25% of the energy.  
Hybrid Solar Lighting (HSL)
HSL, a system of funneling sunlight into buildings through optical fibers, is still under revision to become more cost-effective and accessible for residential use. Some HSLs are already being effectively used in some commercial properties. HSLs differ from solar paneling in that they literally pipe sunlight into the building, rather than converting sunlight into energy to run other forms of light.  
Don’t Forget about Natural Light!
While the amount of light you get depends on location, whenever possible, invite more natural light to your indoor environment by installing larger windows or skylights, and open doors to allow sunlight in. While window glass blocks some of the light spectrum, this is still a better option than fluorescents. The real solutions to our lighting problems should focus on providing natural, full-spectrum sunlight through energy and cost-efficient delivery methods.