The health benefits of LED lighting upgrades are both indirect and direct. For example, upgrading to newer LED lighting can reduce the risk of exposure to harmful contaminants, such as the mercury found in all fluorescent lighting systems and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and other carcinogens that can lead to a variety of adverse health effects on the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems. Attention to appropriate lighting levels and an increased use of near-full spectrum light frequencies can also improve employee and students, performance and patient recovery.
The following outlines areas of concern often undocumented or discussed in public forums.
HEALTH CONCERNS AND BENEFITS
The most commonly cited fluorescent lighting hazard is mercury. Fluorescent and even CFL bulbs contain a small amount of mercury and are identified with the elemental symbol Hg. When these bulbs are cold, some of the mercury in the lamp is in liquid form, but while the lamp is operating or when the lamp is hot, most of the mercury is in a gaseous or vapor form. Mercury vapor is extremely toxic. Even in liquid form, contact with mercury is considered life-threatening or a “severe” risk to health. Even very small doses of mercury can cause severe respiratory tract damage, brain damage, kidney damage, central nervous system damage, and many other serious medical conditions. Although these bulbs do not emit mercury when lighted, breakage of the bulbs produces mercury contamination. A broken fluorescent may leak up to 100 times the federal limit for chronic exposure. This can result in costly decontamination and cleanup to avoid mercury poisoning. The phosphor powder that is inside the bulb also absorbs the mercury, making this powder toxic. Disposed of improperly, mercury can contaminate buildings, landfills, lakes, animals, fish, birds, humans, crops and rivers. Environmentally, nearly 50,000 pounds of mercury waste are dumped into landfills every year because of traditional fluorescent bulbs that are disposed of. Of those 50,000 pounds of mercury, it takes only four milligrams to poison 7,000 gallons of water and render it undrinkable
Fluorescent lamps create several hazards if broken. Depending on the type, there may be a partial vacuum or the lamp may be under pressure. Breaking the glass can cause shrapnel injuries, along with the release of mercury and other hazardous compounds. The biggest immediate injury threat from a broken lamp is from the phosphor-coated glass. If cut with fluorescent lamp glass, any phosphor that gets into the wound is likely to prevent blood clotting and will interfere with healing. Such injuries should be treated seriously and immediate medical attention should be obtained for people or pets that are cut. Medical personnel should be informed that the injuries were caused by a broken fluorescent lamp, and that mercury was present.
To minimize exposure to mercury vapor, EPA and other experts advise a few precautions. Persons should stay away from the area, and windows should be opened for at least 15 minutes so that vapors may disperse.
Other underreported facts concerning traditional fluorescent bulbs concern the emission of ultraviolet (UV) light. Studies indicate that UV exposure from sitting under fluorescent lights for eight hours is equivalent to only one minute of sun exposure. Fluorescent lamps with magnetic ballasts flicker at a normally unnoticeable frequency of 100 or 120 hertz and this flickering can cause problems for some individuals with light sensitivity; they are listed as problematic for some individuals. A long-term hazard from fluorescent lighting is the shorter-wave ultraviolet light that escapes the lamp. No matter how well crafted, some short-wave ultraviolet light escapes from every fluorescent lamp made. (Even incandescent lamps produce a small amount of short-wave ultraviolet light.) Short-wave ultraviolet light is one of the damaging components of the suns’ rays that reach the surface of the Earth, which can directly damage organic tissue and trigger cancers.
Short-wave ultraviolet light can also age or damage paper, fabrics and other materials. Fluorescent lamps tend to leak more short-wave ultraviolet light at the ends of the lamps, where the phosphor coating is frequently thinner and there is more high-energy activity, due of the presence of the cathodes inside each end of the lamp. Some fixtures actually block light from this part of the lamp, but this is likely just a lamp restraint, rather than being an attempt to block ultraviolet light from escaping out of the fixture.
FLICKER AND GLARE
Flicker and glare from fluorescent lights can also cause headaches and have been found to impact learning and ability to concentrate. Although humans cannot see fluorescent lights flicker, the sensory system in some individuals can somehow detect the flicker. Ever since fluorescent lighting was introduced in workplaces, there have been complaints about headaches, eye strain and general eye discomfort. These complaints have been associated with the light flicker from fluorescent lights.
Long-term clinical studies that conclude fluorescent lighting may be related to many academic and health problems. A 2006 study found that students in schools with natural light instead of fluorescent lighting had a 10% to 21% higher learning rate and higher test scores. Fluorescent lighting may trigger headaches, migraines and other physical symptoms. Other studies have reported that persons demonstrated better work habits, improved academic performance, resistance to eye fatigue, more positive attitudes, and less Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a medical condition characterized by symptoms of depression. As the name implies, symptoms begin to emerge during seasonal changes, most commonly in winter. Research indicates that SAD appears to be associated with light, most notably the lack of it. Near-full spectrum LED lighting may serve as a substitute for missing sunlight, helping to relieve these symptoms.