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The medical experts who refuse to use low-energy lightbulbs in their homes: Professors have stocked up on old-style bulbs to protect against skin cancer and blindness. So should YOU be worried?
By JOHN NAISH
PUBLISHED: 18:22 EST, 12 May 2014 | UPDATED: 03:33 EST, 13 May 2014
How would you view a man who’s stockpiled a lifetime supply of old-fashioned lightbulbs because he believes low-energy bulbs could lead to blindness?
You might well dismiss him as dotty. But the man in question, John Marshall, is no crank. In fact, he’s one of Britain’s most eminent eye experts, the professor of ophthalmology at the University College London Institute of Ophthalmology. So concerned is he that he has boxes stacked with old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs at home.
‘I bulk bought incandescent lightbulbs before the Government made it illegal to import them,’ he says.
‘I can’t give you an exact number, but I have enough to see me out.’
Top eye expert Prof John Marshall has boxes stacked with old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs at home
Nor is he alone in his concerns about modern lightbulbs. Another eminent British professor, John Hawk, an expert in skin disease, is warning they may cause sunburn-like damage, premature aging and even skin cancer.
He doesn’t have any low-energy bulbs in his house, explaining: ‘I have lots of old-style bulbs I bought in bulk when they were available.’
Incandescent bulbs had been the standard form of illumination for more than a century.
But following an EU directive, the Government banned the import of 100-watt bulbs from 2009. This was followed by a ban on 60w bulbs in 2011 and a full ban on all ‘traditional’ bulbs in 2012.
The EU directive was aimed at cutting fuel and carbon emissions. The low-energy bulbs – or compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), to give them their technical name – are said to use 80 per cent less electricity and to last longer.
Old-fashioned incandescent bulbs work by electrically heating a filament inside a glass globe filled with inert gas, so that it emits light.
Instead of a glowing filament, low-energy bulbs have argon and mercury vapour within a spiral-shaped tube. When the gas gets heated, it produces ultraviolet light. This stimulates a fluorescent coating painted on the inside of the tube. As this coating absorbs energy, it emits light.
The concern is about some of the light rays emitted in high levels by these bulbs, says Professor Marshall. Recent scientific evidence shows these specific rays are particularly damaging to human eyes and skin.
Light is made up of a spectrum of different coloured rays of light, which have different wavelengths. As he explains: ‘Light is a form of radiation. The shorter the wavelength, the more energy it contains.
‘The most damaging part of the spectrum is the short wavelength light at the indigo/violet end of blue.
‘Incandescent bulbs did not cause problems, but these low-energy lamps emit high peaks of blue and ultraviolet light at this wavelength.’
HOW THEY CAN ATTACK YOUR EYES
In the same way ultraviolet rays in sunlight can cause premature aging in our skin if we get sunburnt, there is a similar situation in the eye, says Professor Marshall.
‘You shed skin every five days, but your retina is with you for life.’
The retina at the back of the eye is vital for sight – it’s made up of light-sensitive cells that trigger nerve impulses that pass via the optic nerve to the brain, where visual images are formed.
Sustained exposure to ultraviolet light wavelengths from CFLs increases the risk of two seriously debilitating eye conditions, macular degeneration and cataracts, the professor claims.
With macular degeneration, the macula, which is at the centre of the retina, becomes damaged with age. A cataract is a clouding of the lens inside the eye. These are two of the leading causes of blindness in Britain.
‘If you are in a country with high levels of ultraviolet light, your eyes will age faster,’ he says. ‘This is why the incidence of cataracts is earlier and greater nearer the equator, where sunlight is at its strongest, so there is more light across all spectrums. CFLs may have a similar effect.
‘The exposure can also significantly increase your risk of macular degeneration. The biggest risk factor for this is age, as it commonly starts to affect people from 60 to 80.
‘You will almost certainly exacerbate that risk with low-energy lightbulbs,’ adds the professor, who last month warned his colleagues of the dangers at Optrafair, a national education forum for opticians.