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Blinding light: energy-efficient fluorescent lighting may cause eye disease

Exposure to UV through fluorescent lighting may increase related eye diseases by up to 12%. titan3025/Flickr

One way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to phase out incandescent lighting in favour of more energy-efficient lighting. But such a move could see an increase in the number of people suffering from eye disease.

The shift has already taken place in Australia and the European Union. In the United States, federal law stipulates that incandescent lights be phased out by 2014.

It’s estimated that the change in lighting type in Australia alone will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 28 million tons between 2008 and 2020. So a global move toward fluorescent lighting in the home could lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gases.

Incandescent lights are being replaced with energy efficient types of lighting such as high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and fluorescent lighting, including the popular compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs).


All these light sources are more efficient than the incandescent lamps, with:

  • HID lamps being less energy efficient than fluorescent lights, but used widely for lighting large areas, such as streets and sports facilities;

  • LEDs being energy efficient but not as bright, stable, or cheap as fluorescent lights and;

  • flourescent lighting being the most energy efficient, and also producing the best light to work under. These lights use 75% less energy than incandescent lamps, but emit UV radiation.

Given the efficiency of fluorescent lights, it’s not surprising that they are the most popular lighting option. But many people are now exposed to additional UV radiation emitted from these lights.

The dangers of UV radiation

UV radiation from the sun can damage eyesight. Most people, for instance, are aware of the importance of not looking directly at the sun, and operators of arc welders know to wear protective goggles.

Less attention has been paid to the potentially damaging effects of UV radiation from indoor light sources, such as fluorescent lighting, which is now a significant source of UV radiation.

The lights vary in terms of colour temperature, conventionally stated in kelvin (K), and there are variations and inconsistencies among manufacturers.

Tim Norvell

The safe range of light to avoid exposing the eye to potentially damaging UV light is approximately 2000K to 3500K and greater than 500nm (nanometers are a unit of length). UV wavelengths less than 500nm (and certainly less than 380nm) are capable of irreparable damage to the eye.

Unfortunately, some fluorescent lights currently fall outside this safe range.

The warmer CFLs, which are usually less than 3500K, are less damaging to the eye but produce light that’s often inadequate for concentration at work.

The fluorescent lighting used indoors, particularly in commercial settings, is often in the form of cool-white tubes with a colour temperature of 4000K or greater.

Exposure to UV through fluorescent lighting may increase related eye diseases by up to 12%, leading to an additional 10000 additional cases of eye disease each year.


Unknown extent

Our estimates are conservative as they’re limited by a lack of data on the incidence and etiology of many eye diseases, particularly degenerative eye diseases.

But if UV radiation was shown to cause this degenerative eye disease, it would have significant public health implications.

What evidence we have suggests the least hazardous approach to lighting from a health perspective is to use warm-white tubes or incandescent bulbs of lower colour temperature and longer wavelength light rather than fluorescent lamps.

Unfortunately, anything other than fluorescent lighting is considered inadequate for many workplaces and in the home.

We recommend UV filters become a required standard. Lamp manufacturers should not allow current levels of emission of UV light from fluorescent lighting to increase and should work toward reducing emissions.

Further research is also needed to improve lighting from artificial sources. We must be mindful of potential adverse health implications of future changes to technology.

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