The Dangers of Ultraviolet Rays in Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Written by tyler lacoma
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The Dangers of Ultraviolet Rays in Fluorescent Light Bulbs
Fluorescent lights produce a small amount of ultraviolet radiation. (fluorescent image by timur1970 from Fotolia.com)

Fluorescent lights last longer than incandescent bulbs and are more energy efficient. Many governments, including the U.S. federal government, have instituted policies to encourage residents and businesses to replace incandescent bulbs with fluorescent ones. However, fluorescent lights do come with their own set of dangers. Mercury vapour is present in the bulbs and leads to problems with breakage and recycling, and ultraviolet radiation may also be a hazard.

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Fluorescent Lights

Fluorescent lights use a combination of gases and phosphor coatings to produce light. An arc of electricity jumps from one end of the fluorescent tube to the other. On its way, it energises the mercury vapour in the tube, which produces ultraviolet radiation. This UV light passes into the phosphor coating, which also becomes energised, but then produces visible light.

Light Development

The first fluorescent lights had thin phosphor coatings and a gas mixture that allowed a fair amount of UV light to escape. Modern fluorescent bulbs are of higher quality, and barely any ultraviolet radiation escapes the coating, not enough to do any damage to most humans over the long term, according to the GE Consumer & Industrial Lighting website. GE research shows that a tiny amount of ultraviolet light always escapes, but it is usually less than the amount ordinary sunlight produces.

Ultraviolet Dangers

The UV light that fluorescent bulbs produce is not harmful to most people, but it can still be destructive on the cellular level in some cases. According to the Council of Citizens with Low Vision International, people who already have damaged eyes that make them very susceptible to ultraviolet light should avoid the stronger types of fluorescent bulbs, since even the small amount of radiation they emit can be dangerous to their eyes. According to GreenFacts, some fluorescent bulbs can also damage the skin of people with existing skin conditions.

Museum Pieces

While the ultaviolet rays in fluorescent lights are rarely harmful to people without eye or skin conditions, these rays can harm more sensitive objects located around the lights. There are some situations where even the smallest amounts of ultraviolet light created by fluorescent lamps is unacceptable. Museums, for instance, cannot allow any radiation to damage precious manuscripts and tapestries, even the small amount created by fluorescent bulbs. To prevent UV light from escaping, fluorescents in museums sometimes are made with special UV absorbing filters, according to the Northern States Conservation Center. While the phosphor coating absorbs most of the radiation from the bulb, this filter, or sheeting, blocks the small amount that escapes, protecting fragile artefacts.

UV Lights

Some types of fluorescents are designed to let UV light through. Sometimes phosphor coatings allow shorter UV wavelengths to escape, while other coatings actually produce ultraviolet radiation. There are three types of UV radiation--A, B and C, with A being the least harmful and C being very dangerous. According to Vanderbilt University, some bulbs are used for tanning salons, but generally use A-type radiation with only a small amount of B-type radiation and no C-Type. Other bulbs with C-type UV light are used to disinfect air or water, and are very dangerous for all organisms, causing burns, cell damage, and cancer.

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