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Do lightbulbs need a health warning label?

LED maker cites a possible link between lighting and health

Published: June 15, 2015 12:00 PM

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Cigarettes and alcohol come with a health warning label—straightforward reminders of the hazards that may result from using the product. Now a lightbulb manufacturer is adding a health warning to its LED packaging. The new label, which will begin appearing on all Lighting Science LEDs in August, reads “Exposure to certain electric lights may cause biological effects, some potentially disruptive. Further details and protection information can be found at www.healthimpactoflight.com.” As warnings go, this one’s a bit vague and scary, so why add it?

Almost as soon as the first electric lights were introduced, scientists, doctors, and sociologists expressed concern about its impact on human biology. (If you’re interested in reading further, check out “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light” by Jane Brox.)

Consumer Reports’ medical experts say that studies have shown that exposure to light at night is clearly associated with an increased risk of sleep problems as well as mood disorders. Additional research has linked light at night with an increased risk of breast cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, however, much more research remains to be done to determine just how significant that risk may be.

So, why single out LEDs? LEDs do emit more blue light than CFLs, and incandescents emit very little. And while any light can suppress melatonin, the hormone that facilitates sleep, research has shown that human eyes are especially sensitive to blue (which is also emitted in higher levels by most of today’s indispensable electronic devices).

Getting the message out

Fred Maxik, founder and chief technology officer of Lighting Science, says that in contrast to the older incandescent bulbs, LEDs and CFLs have significantly changed the impact light has on human health, affecting our circadian rhythms. He believes the effects can be beneficial, such as promoting alertness or enabling natural sleep hormones to be released. But “there’s a growing amount of evidence that light can also have negative biological effects,” he says. And that’s why the company created the label. Maxik is also encouraging other lighting manufacturers to make consumers aware of the effects of light on health.

Lighting Science has hired former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Louis W. Sullivan, M.D., as a consultant. “The fact is that the wrong kind of light can be disruptive on sleep patterns,” he says. “I think this label gives interesting information to the public so they can decide, particularly for people with sleep problems.” Lighting Science’s healthimpactoflight.com—mentioned in the warning—offers health information and functions as a marketing tool by including links to purchase some of the company’s specialty LEDs, such as the $60 Good Night bulb, which we found does have significantly lower blue light levels than other LEDs we’ve tested. For our tests results, read "LED lightbulbs that promise to help you sleep."

Whether consumers start seeing similar voluntary warning labels popping up on other brands remains to be seen, according to Terry McGowan, director of engineering and a spokesman for the American Lighting Association. “Information reporting on light and human health research is certainly helpful to consumers,” he says. “It’s likely that each company will interpret the research and the performance of their products in different ways, so they will choose different ways to provide the information.”

What you can do

Our medical experts say to minimize your exposure to all sources of blue light a few hours before turning in by shutting off smart phones, TVs, and other electronics. The blue light in the backlit screens of electronic devices fools the brain into thinking it’s daytime. And the smaller the screen, the closer you hold it to your eyes, which concentrates the light.

And for that bedside lamp? Choose an LED that casts a warmer color, and less blue, around 2700 Kelvin. You’ll see light color noted on the Lighting Facts Label on the LED package, and our lightbulb Ratings will tell you too.  For more advice check out “Secrets to a better night’s sleep” by Consumer Reports’ health experts. It’s a great bedtime story.

Kimberly Janeway

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