How Fluorescent Lights Affect You and Your Health

The effect florescent lights can have on your productivity and welfare

Fluorescent Light Cloudy Sky Cover
Fluorescent Light Cloudy Sky Cover. Chris Adams

Fluorescent lights are a common light source in an office building and shopping markets. With the advent of compact fluorescent lights, they are becoming commonplace most homes as well. Fluorescent lights are cheap to buy compared to how long they last (about 13 times longer than regular incandescent bulb) and cheap to operate requiring a fraction of the energy incandescent bulbs do. But they can be incredibly bad for you.

The Problems

There have been hundreds of studies done since the last quarter of the last century that have shown causal links between elongated exposure to fluorescent lights and various negative effects. The base of these problems is all based on the quality of light that's emitted.

The theory is basically that we are children of the sun. It is only relatively recently, with the proliferation of electricity, that humankind has taken complete control of the night and interior spaces. Before that most light came from the sun or a flame, and since flames didn't give you that much light you usually woke according to the sun and worked by a window.

With the light bulb, we had the ability to do more at night and work in enclosed rooms without windows. When the fluorescent light came about businesses had a cheap and durable light source so of course, they adopted it. But it's not the same type of light as the sun gives us.

The sun gives us a full spectrum light, that is, a light that spans the entirety of the visual spectrum. In fact, the sun gives us a lot more than the visual spectrum. Incandescent lights give off a full spectrum, but not as much as sunlight. Fluorescent lights give off a rather limited spectrum.

A lot of our body chemistry is based on the day-night cycle and we refer to it as the circadian rhythm. Theoretically, if you do not get sufficient exposure to sunlight your circadian rhythm gets messed up and that, in turn, messes up your hormones and then you're all screwed up.

Health Effects 

There are a number of negative health effects that have been linked to working under fluorescent lights that are theorized to be caused by this body chemistry mechanism such as:

  • Migraines
  • Eye strain
  • Problems sleeping, due to melatonin suppression
  • Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder or depression
  • Endocrine disruption and poor immune systems
  • Female hormonal/menstrual cycle disruption
  • Increases in breast cancer rates and tumor formation
  • Stress/Anxiety, due to cortisol suppression
  • Sexual development/maturation disruption
  • Obesity
  • Agoraphobia (anxiety disorder)

The other main cause of problems with fluorescent lights is that they flicker. Fluorescent light bulbs contain a gas that gets excited and glows when electricity is passed through this. The electricity is not constant. It is controlled by an electric ballast that pulses on and off really fast. To most people, it is so fast that it looks like it is on constantly. However, some people can perceive the flicker even if they can't consciously see it. This can cause:

  • Migraines
  • Headaches
  • Eye strain
  • Stress/Anxiety

Additionally, fluorescent bulbs, especially cheaper bulbs, may have a green cast to them making all the colors in your environment drabber and sickly looking.

The Solutions

If you are forced to work/live beneath fluorescent lights for extended periods of time each day there are a number of things you can do to combat the negative effects. The first is to get out in the sun more. Getting sun exposure, especially for stints in the morning midday and late afternoon, can help maintain your circadian rhythm. Putting in some windows, skylights, or solar tubes to bring sunlight into your interior environment can work as well.

Short of bringing in the sun you can bring in a light source with a fuller spectrum. There are some "full spectrum" and "daylight spectrum" fluorescent lights in the market that have a better color temperature spread than regular fluorescent lights so they do help, but they don't replace sunlight. Alternately you can put a full spectrum light filter over your fluorescent bulb or light fixture lens that alters the light coming out of the fluorescent bulb and gives it a fuller spectrum. These tend to give off more Ultraviolet (UV) rays that may cause skin problems, prematurely age materials like plastic or leather, and cause photos to fade.

Incandescent lights do a decent job of providing a good spectrum of light that most people respond to. Another benefit of incandescent lights is that they are a constant light source that doesn't flicker. If you perceive fluorescent flicker having a single incandescent light bulb on in the room can be enough to cover the flicker and keep it from affecting you. They can also balance out any green tint given off by the fluorescent bulb.

In some case phototherapy, or light box therapy, can counteract lack of sunlight exposure. This is a common treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder and it uses an incredibly bright light for a limited amount of time to help keep your body chemistry regulated.

Optometrists have long prescribed glasses with a very light rose-colored tint on them to counteract the effects of working under fluorescent lights, especially in women who are experiencing hormonal problems.

Flicker problems can be improved by using fluorescent light fixtures that use electronic ballasts as opposed to magnetic ones.