Beginning on January 1, 2014, the U.S. Government has mandated that we all switch to CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) to save the planet. But it turns out that even short term exposure to CFLs can not only increase your risk of breast cancer, but also make it more difficult to treat.
In a study published in Chronobiology International in 2011, breast cancer rates were shown to be 22% higher for women who were exposed to Blue Light. CFL bulbs produce more Blue Light than other lighting sources, leading researchers to connect CFL usage to breast cancer rate increases.
Blue Light is a type of UV light, defined as light in the visible spectrum between 500nm to 381nm wavelengths. According to the Chronobiology International study which was conducted at Haifa University by Dr. Abraham Haim, the increased use of CFLs raised overall exposure to Blue Light dramatically, causing increased risk of breast cancer.
While CFL use in the workplace is nothing new, CFL use in the home on a large scale is new. The rise in CFL home use – especially at night – is problematic for two reasons. One, the typical user is physically closer to the CFL while at home, since lighting is in bedside tables and in reading lights, which leads to higher exposure to Blue Light. And two, the overall exposure to Blue Light is compounded by both daytime and night-time exposure, increasing the total amount of time spent in Blue Light.
Since the early 1990s, scientists have cautioned about the overuse of artificial light and the health risks associated with it. Studies at the time revealed that blind individuals had lower levels of Breast Cancers, thought to stem from the fact that these individuals had less exposure to artificial light. Research supported the claim that night-time light exposure (light pollution) was the culprit. But it wasn’t until the researchers looked more closely into the phenomenon that the direct link between CFLs and breast cancer emerged.
Recent research into the effects of CFL-produced Blue Light and its relationship to breast cancer rates has supported the findings of the 2011 study. A Harvard study found that Blue Light thrown off by CFLs is more efficient at suppressing the production of melatonin, a powerful hormone produced in the pineal gland. You may be familiar with melatonin as the hormone that regulates sleep patterns, but melatonin also regulates tumor growth in breast cancer.
Breast cancer requires hormones like estrogen and progesterone to grow. But melatonin, produced at night while you sleep, has been shown to reduce tumor size.
Melatonin is produced by the body only at night and only in darkness. The natural production of melatonin is inhibited by even a brief exposure to CFL lighting — no matter when that exposure occurs. During daylight hours, your body is not producing melatonin, so CFL exposure is less of a concern. But exposure at night, especially in the few hours before bedtime, according to the Harvard study, dramatically reduced the production of melatonin during the time when the body would naturally produce it.
The link between melatonin and reducing tumor size is so strong that melatonin is a hormone that is used to treat cancer. It is currently used as an adjunct therapy to reduce tumor size in breast cancer patients. The connection between melatonin and breast cancer was established in 2005 in a study by Dr. D.E. Blask, in which he related the link between cancer growth rates and melatonin. If production of melatonin is suppressed by exposure to CFL lighting, fighting Beast Cancer may be more complicated and less likely to have a good outcome.
The Harvard study suggests that limiting or eliminating Blue Light, especially at night is the answer to reducing health risks. But the fact that CFLs are now the most readily available lighting source in the U.S. makes a solution problematic. This leads some critics to suggest that the congressionally-mandated phase out of incandescent bulbs and the resulting switch to CFLs was rushed into before a full understanding of the long term consequences could be determined.
In December of 2007, long before the current mandate regarding CFLs, the World Health Organization took the unusual step of classifying shift work as a “probable carcinogen.” This determination was made based on research results the WHO had gathered which showed increased rates of cancer in shift workers who were exposed to CFL lighting at night. Nurses and airline stewardesses, who routinely work night shifts, have been found more likely to develop breast cancer than any other form of cancer.
Evidence is mounting that CFLs are a prime example of what can only be called the unintended consequences of a policy that may have been well intended, but has fallen short of being the best solution. It is too late now to reinstate the production of incandescent bulbs here in the U.S., and the problem of reclaiming and recycling CFLs (that contain hazardous substances like mercury) has yet to even be addressed.
But to many cancer researchers, it is time to wake-up and address the long-term dangers posed by the constant use of CFLs. It may well turn out that in saving the planet, we have destroyed ourselves.