Earthwatch – Compact Fluorescents vs. Full Spectrum Bulbs

A Closer Look at Compact Fluorescents – The Environmental Benefit versus Health Impact

The humble light bulb has attracted media, government and celebrity attention lately. Old style incandescent bulbs are on the way out and environmentally-friendly, efficient compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are in.

You’ve probably passed the billboard that features a smiling David Suzuki holding up one of these in an effort to get you to switch. And if that’s not enough, the Government of Ontario announced in April of this year that it is banning the sale of what it calls “inefficient” incandescent light bulbs by 2012.

CFLs use approximately 75 per cent less energy than standard incandescent bulbs. The government claims that: “Replacing all 87 million incandescent bulbs in Ontario households with CFLs would save six million megawatt hours annually, enough to power 600,000 homes.” Ontario’s environment minister says “it’s the equivalent of taking 250,000 cars off the road.”

But is there more to this story than meets the eye?


Readers may remember a recent news story in the U.S. about a woman in Maine who broke a CFL in her home and wound up having to pay $2,000 for hazardous material cleanup because of the mercury contained in the bulb.

According to Mark Rabbior, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, the amount of mercury contained in one household thermometer is equivalent to that contained in about 100 CFLs. The ministry’s concerns aren’t with the potential health hazards of the bulbs, he says, but rather with their disposal. The government is currently developing a program to deal with used CFLs which will be in place before the 2012 deadline.

“We would look at having a program developed in conjunction with the Waste Disposal Office that would be turned into a regulation that would help recycle these materials or reuse these materials rather than having them sent for disposal,” Rabbior says.

He adds that one of the main sources of mercury emissions are coal-fired plants, and that if more people used energy efficient bulbs it would reduce the overall amount of energy used which would greatly reduce the mercury from these plants.

According to General Electric’s website, “CFLs present an opportunity to prevent mercury emissions from entering the environment because they help to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. A coal-fired power plant will emit 13.6 milligrams of mercury to produce electricity required to use an incandescent light bulb, compared to 3.3 milligrams for a CFL.”

Chris Cooper of the Network for New Energy Choices points out that a CFL has the distinct advantage that “its mercury can be collected and recycled, unlike atmospheric pollution.”

That’s only if they’re collected and recycled – something on which the Ontario government currently has no regulations

Cameron S. Lory, chief author of a 2004 U.S. report called Shedding Light on Mercury in Fluorescents: A Workbook for Design Professionals, said “mercury from broken and discarded fluorescent lamps is a major contributor to widespread mercury contamination of the environment,” and that in the year the report was released “680 million lamps containing 13 tons of mercury” entered the U.S. waste stream.


The health effects of light cast by fluorescents has long been a source of debate, with some claiming it causes headaches and depression.

Elementary school Principal William Titoff, in his Ph.D. dissertation, found that “there was a statistically significant difference between students who worked under old-style fluorescent lights and those who worked under full-spectrum, visually-efficient lighting.” His study also found that depression was reduced among those students who studied under full spectrum lights and that it increased among fourth graders who sat under fluorescents.

A similar study, conducted in Florida in 1973 by light pioneer Dr. John Ott, found that students under fluorescents were more likely to be irritable, hyperactive, fatigued and have trouble paying attention. The students under full spectrum lights were better behaved and performed better academically within one month of the lights’ installation.

Dr. Mark Berber, a psychiatrist at the Markham/Stouffville hospital and lecturer at the University of Toronto who treats patients for depression and anxiety, says it’s difficult to point the finger directly at fluorescent lighting. “Although the lack of full spectrum may be contributing to the mood change, it’s very hard to isolate that effect from the general effects of working indoors, away from natural light and fresh air and exercise.”

However, he says that when treating patients for winter depression, they use full spectrum light boxes instead of fluorescent ones because they do a better job. “The first thing we do is recommend full spectrum light therapy as step one in their treatment regime” he says, adding that a half hour of this per day results in an 80 per cent success rate.


The term “full spectrum” was coined by Dr. John Ott in the 1960s to describe the light of the sun at noon. Full spectrum bulbs are designed to mimic this light. U.S. full spectrum light manufacturer Verilux, whose trademark is “Scientifically tuned to the human eye,” claims on their website that their lights were “developed on the basic premise that the eyes’ photoreceptors work best together when exposed to the full and balanced spectrum of visible light.”

Rob Grand, owner of Grassroots Environmental Products in Toronto, says consumers should use different lights for different purposes. He uses CFLs in places like outside the front of his house or under the counter, as well as indirect lights in the kitchen. In places where he reads or does similar activities, he uses full spectrum bulbs. “The full spectrum bulb offers a light spectrum that closely mimics natural sunlight,” he says.

Since they’re incandescent, full spectrum bulbs aren’t as efficient as CFLs although they do last approximately 5,000 hours (which is six times longer than ordinary incandescent bulbs). As a way of making his more efficient, Grand uses a dimmer. “I might not need a full 60 watts at 10:00 at night when I’m reading, so I just tone it down a bit so I maybe only use 30 watts. I’m using less electricity but I’m still getting the benefits of the full spectrum bulb.”

For Vitality editor Julia Woodford, there’s no question that full spectrum bulbs are the best for human health. “Fluorescent lights bother my eyes and make me tired and irritable. So in any areas where I spend long hours reading and working, I would only ever use full spectrum light bulbs. They’re expensive at about $12 per bulb, but well worth it to me for easing eyestrain and improving my energy level, especially in fall and winter when there’s less sunlight coming in the window,” she says.

Like Rob Grand, she uses CFLs for hallway, kitchen and porch lights – areas where indirect illumination is needed and long hours of close exposure are not an issue.

With the benefits of full spectrum light being quite clear, manufacturers of fluorescents have started offering “full spectrum” fluorescents. Although these may offer an improvement over regular fluorescents, they still have a ways to go. A study done in 2001 by the Canadian government found that: “the best studies show that there is generally no intrinsic benefit to a full-spectrum fluorescent lamp in comparison to other common electric light sources.”

Grand says “I’m really excited to see them come out but until I try them, I can’t really endorse them.”


Despite the potential problems with CFLs, they’ve clearly won over environmentalists like Grand. “I feel that the overall good that the CFLs are providing by reducing our energy demands far outweigh the trace amount of mercury that’s found in these bulbs,” he says.

Grand says they tell their customers that when their CFLs do burn out, make sure they’re disposed of properly.

The irony of this whole debate is that it’s likely only a few years away from becoming yesterday’s news. The reason? LED lights.

“Ten years down the pipe I think we’ll probably be looking at making a lot of switches from CFLs to LED light,” says Grand.

He says they’ve tested about a dozen different LED bulbs, some of which cast “poor, poor quality” light and adds “the technology is still not there yet but it’s getting there.”

The Grassroots Annex store is in the middle of a pilot project wherein all the lighting is LED. “We’re the first store, I believe in North America, to be doing this. That will significantly reduce our hydro bill every month.”

He says “you’re already seeing LEDs being incorporated into things like flashlights because the quality of light’s not a huge issue” adding, “they’re still in their infancy so they are, for most people, cost-prohibitive (about $60 per bulb). And the quality of light – they’re still working on that as well.”

Despite the drawbacks of CFLs, the push toward them isn’t going to end anytime soon. As consumers continue to switch to these bulbs, they need to be aware of the health implications and use them accordingly.


Full spectrum bulb manufacturers:

Verilux bulbs, (Available in most health food stores).

Bluesbuster bulbs, (Available in some health food stores).

Grassroots Store, 372 Danforth Avenue (at Chester) 416-466-2841, 408 Bloor Street West (at Brunswick) 416-944-1993,

$600 Million Downtown Power Line Planned

The Ontario Power Authority (OPA) is proposing that Hydro One build a new $600 million high-voltage transmission line to bring additional nuclear generated electricity to downtown Toronto, according to a report East Toronto Transmission Line: Pulling Toronto Backwards, released by the Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA) recently.

According to the Independent Electricity System Operator, this line will be needed between 2011 and 2015 to keep up with the city’s electrical demands if no other steps are taken. The OPA’s preferred route for the line is likely through East Toronto from the Parkway Transformer Station in Markham to the Hearn Transformer Station near the mouth of the Don River on the waterfront. Part of the route will be strung on transmission towers that are as tall as a 10-storey building and that will require a right-of-way as wide as a major arterial road.

“The proposed East Toronto transmission line is the electricity equivalent of the Spadina Expressway,” said Jack Gibbons, Chair of the OCAA. “There is a better option which protects Toronto’s east-end neighbourhoods and the environment while keeping energy dollars and jobs in the city, but it won’t happen if decision making stays in the backrooms,” he said. “Instead of increasing the output of the Bruce and Darlington nuclear stations and building a new high-voltage transmission line, we should meet 100% of the City’s incremental electricity needs from Made-in-Toronto options, such as energy conservation, small-scale renewables and natural gas-fired combined heat and power plants.”

“With strong leadership from Mayor Miller and city-owned utilities Toronto Hydro and Enwave Energy Corporation, we can make Toronto the greenest city in North America and eliminate the need for the proposed East Toronto Transmission Line,” Mr. Gibbons noted.

The OCAA’s report, including a map showing proposed routes for the East Toronto Transmission Line, can be downloaded from

(courtesy of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance)

Kleen Kanteen: Safe and Eco-Friendly Containers for Your Precious Fluids

As plastics continue to fall from public favour due to toxic leaching and environmental unfriendliness, consumers are in search of something in which to store liquid on the go. With Kleen Kanteen, they may have found it. They’re made of sturdy #304 stainless steel which is used in the dairy, brewery and food processing industries. Because it’s inert, this steel won’t leach into liquid the way plastic does. The kanteens come in four different sizes: 12, 18, 27, and 40 oz. Accessories like different caps and holders are also available. They aren’t insulated so they weigh less. This means they’re not ideal for hot liquids although burlap or hemp insulators are available to keep liquids hot or cool.

Kleen Kanteen Products are available at Grassroots in Toronto ( Retailers can inquire at

Write a Comment

view all comments