How Fluorescent Lights Affect You and Your Health

The Impact Fluorescent Light Can Have on Your Productivity and Welfare

flourescent lights shine over an empty office filled with cubicles.
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Fluorescent lights are a common light source in office buildings and shopping markets. With the advent of compact fluorescent lights, they are becoming commonplace in most homes as well. Fluorescent lights are less expensive to buy compared to how long they last (about 13 times longer than regular incandescent bulbs) and they are much less expensive to operate. They require a fraction of the energy that incandescent bulbs use. But they can have negative impacts on your health.

The Problems

There were hundreds of studies done over the last quarter of the last century that showed causal links between elongated exposure to fluorescent lights and various negative effects. The foundation of most of these problems is the quality of light that's emitted.

Some of the theories about negative effects or dangers stem from the fact that we evolved with the sun as our main source of light. 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. Since flames don't give much light, humans usually woke along with sunrise and worked outdoors or, later in our history, by windows.

With the light bulb, we had the ability to do more at night and to work in enclosed rooms without windows. When the fluorescent lights were invented, businesses had access to a cheap and durable light source and they adopted it. But fluorescent bulbs do not produce the same type of light as the sun gives us.

The sun produces a full spectrum light: that is, a light that spans the entirety of the visual spectrum. In fact, the sun gives 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 human body chemistry is based on the day-night cycle, which is also known as the circadian rhythm. Theoretically, if you do not get sufficient exposure to sunlight, your circadian rhythm gets thrown off and that, in turn, throws off your hormones with some negative health impacts.

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 disturbance to our circadian rhythms and the accompanying body chemistry mechanisms. These negative health effects may include:

  • 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)

Flickering

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 quickly. To most people, the flicker is so fast that it looks like the light is on constantly. However, some people can perceive the flicker even if they can't consciously see it. This may 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 more drab and sickly looking. There is some theory that this, at the least, affects mood.

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 help as well.

Short of bringing in sunlight itself, you can bring in a light source with a fuller spectrum. There are some "full spectrum" and "daylight spectrum" fluorescent lights on 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 well. Another benefit of incandescent lights is that they are a constant light source that doesn't flicker. If you perceive the 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. These bulbs can also balance out any green tint given off by the fluorescent bulb.

In some cases, 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. Finally, flicker problems can be improved by using fluorescent light fixtures that use electronic ballasts as opposed to magnetic ones.