The story so far…


Please help LightAware to raise awareness about how artificial lighting affects human health and wellbeing

In the beginning there were light bulbs. Just normal light bulbs, with a warm, calm, bright light. You had a stash of them in your hall cupboard. You made jokes about how many people it took to change a light bulb, because it was really such a simple affair.


Then a whole new kind of light bulb came along, weird, space-age-looking, curly things called CFLs. We were told these were Good and Green. You switched them on and waited…peering into the dull, cold gloom until enough light arrived to see. Unsurprisingly not everyone liked them, and along came a wider array of new developments, speedier-CFLs, halogens, LEDs, and all sorts of fittings. Changing a light bulb got a whole lot more complicated.


And then came barely believable news – normal incandescent light bulbs had been deemed bad, and were to be banned by the European Union. How on earth did that happen? It seems that with the best of intentions the European Green Party had seized an opportunity to attach this new lighting to legislation on making household products greener. And the rest of ’em, keen to be seen to be green, let it become law.

And who could argue? I didn’t. I work and socialize with an environmentally-aware bunch and these lights spread enthusiastically through my world, in general the greener the company the grimmer the lighting. The light was ghastly but we believed it was good and so we’d just have to suffer it. In the face of the cataclysmic prospect of global warming, who could bicker about aesthetics?

But then doubts started to emerge… and questions lingered without answers. Were these new light bulbs really so green – containing mercury and other toxins, manufactured in China with complex electronics…? How much mercury is in them and what would happen if you dropped one? What about their safe disposal?

And then people began to report feeling ill when exposed to this new lighting, with symptoms including migraine and debilitating headaches, skin rashes and burning, joint aches, dizziness, sickness and fainting. Were these new lights actually safe for human health?

But the legal wheels were turning and the ban ploughed onwards through its successive stages, oblivious to these questions. Throughout the UK, Councils earnestly intent on cutting their carbon footprints installed new fluorescent lighting in schools and community centres across the land, hospitals and health centres and churches and businesses did likewise. Soon most of civic life was lit by fluorescent gloom.

But what happens to the lives of people who cannot tolerate this new lighting?

Err… nobody’s thought about that.

And what provision has been made for these people to access healthcare, education, shops, community centres, places of worship, transport, public toilets etc?

Err…. none at all.

It seems to me that this legislation is democratically dodgy, ethically absurd, an infringement of civil liberties and a serious issue of health and social exclusion. And yet there’s been very little scrutiny, by politics, medicine or the media.

Maybe one of the reasons is because it’s a complex issue. It’s got physics in it. Physics, all mixed up with the mechanisms of European legislation, with an added dose of dermatology and neurology, doesn’t make for easy listening. I certainly couldn’t face getting to grips with it all, until – you guessed it – it happened to me.

At a conference centre last April, sitting under CFL lighting I experienced a sensation as if my head was being fried: intense burning, together with nausea and confusion and severe agitation. Ever since I have experienced these symptoms when exposed to CFLs and new fluorescent strip lighting.

I’m perfectly well if I stay away from this lighting, but that means staying away from my children’s school, friends’ houses, most shops, community centres, libraries, swimming pools, churches and Quaker Meeting Houses, public transport, healthcare centres and hospitals…

I’m writing this blog because I’m scared and confused, and trying to come to terms with what this means for my life and my family. Writing is my way of processing stuff and gaining understanding and clarity. Normally I do this in the privacy of my own notebooks but I thought I’d try blogging for the first time, in the hope that it may offer some solidarity to others in the same situation and to raise awareness of this unreported issue.

The EU acknowledges that some people cannot tolerate this new lighting, but reckon it’s a small enough percentage of the population to be ‘acceptable’. It’s not acceptable if you’re one of them. It’s not acceptable at all. It’s enough to make you incandescent…

Dark skies and dog whelks … and all of everything

In September I joined the upbeat international swirl of stargazing, science, art and tourism that was the first European Dark Sky Places Conference. I can’t think when I last met so many interesting people or learned so much in 24 hours…

…Talking with the owners of a cosmic campsite in Arizona, who tell me that humans can see in the dark, we just need time to adjust, and that the real dark sky isn’t dark at all but a perpetual light show of cosmic activity. Breakfasting with a marine ecologist who talks of the impact of new lighting on the ocean inhabitants. Hearing tales of a pitch-black restaurant in London, of a ghost train in New Zealand, of the Isle of Sark where there’s no cars or streetlights and no one’s scared of the dark. Meeting a guy who travels with a mobile planetarium teaching kids about the night sky, who shines with the joy of those who truly love their work. And, over dinner, watching a Professor of Astronomy perform some nifty card tricks …

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The conference was held in the UK’s first Dark Sky Park in Dumfries and Galloway, a corner of SW Scotland that’s new territory for me and I was keen to explore. But heading west in torrential rain I could see nothing beyond the windscreen wipers, and felt for the organisers who must so want to show off these pristine night skies, and for the global gathering of stargazers who had come from as far afield as New Zealand, Chile, China and the US to celebrate it.

I do so love a conference. Mostly I work from home in the solitude of my attic office, so it’s a buzz to be in a social whirl with a shared focus. All credit to the organisers for gathering such an impressively multi-disciplinary gang: academics and astronomers, artists, tourism people, rangers and guides, architects and lighting designers, council officials and geographers, biologists, ecologists, neurologists, and more. And hey, hallelujah – they’re all here to talk about light!

Having reached the stage where most of my friends and family glaze over or flinch from my endless rants that WE NEED TO TALk ABOUT LIGHT!, it was a relief and a joy to do so relentlessly – all day long and through most of the night.

For me the most revelatory session was on the environmental impacts of light: ‘Ecosystems, humans and health’. First we heard from a neuroscientist who explained how on this revolving planet, almost all members of the animal kingdom have evolved to the ancient rhythm of dark and light, and how all of life has evolved mechanisms to synchronise behavior with the ambient light around. In humans, this is the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain: the body clock, or circadian rhythm. This controls not just sleep, but so many more aspects of physiology, including hormone secretion, body temperature, even bowel movements.

A graph showed vividly how the invention of artificial lighting is very, very recent in evolutionary history – just a tiny slither of time (and, I thought, the recent changes in lighting even more sobrokenclock).
So the lighting environment we’re experiencing is utterly different to that which we’ve evolved for: we’re dealing with a broken clock.
And because light affects so much, this broken clock messes with everything: sleep problems, weight, cancer, reduced immunity to disease and viral infection, even increased risk of substance abuse.

“So the lighting environment we’re experiencing is utterly different to that which we’ve evolved for: we’re dealing with a broken clock.”

Next a marine ecologists takes the story seamlessly on from human health to the rest of the natural world. In changing both the quality of and quantity of light, he explains, we’re messing with the very mechanism which programmes life itself. All of it… bud burst and flowering in plants, migrations of zooplankton, turtles hatching, toads and frogs singing, bats feeding, the list goes on and on… everything.

Of course, I’m thinking, of course… light that’s messing up human physiology and psychology is going to cause problems for our fellow creatures too. How could it be otherwise? We’re all programmed by the same cues. I’d been aware of some of this – read research on the effect of LED streetlighting on trees, and studies on bats have been flickering around my peripheral vision. But I’ve been so focused on the health and justice issues of new lighting, that I hadn’t taken in the extent to which this is a wildlife and natural history story.

When I’ve given talks to school children, the best word I could find for ‘ecology’ was the ‘connected-up-y-ness of life’. I felt a delicious sense of connected-up-y-ness there in Dumfries and Galloway, the coming together of so many different disciplines but also so many aspects of my own life and work.
In getting embroiled in this lights stuff, I felt I was moving away from my natural habitat of wildlife writing into deep, murky waters of physics and international legislation. As I’ve said before, I’d rather be writing about dolphins. Further still, I found myself facing hostility to my stance on lighting bans from much of the scene that I’d previously felt a part of. Many Green and environmental organisations, that I had previously worked for and with, championed new lighting and vilified incandescent bulbs. But I followed a reluctant calling to delve deeper into this crazy lights story, and I find the wildlife world coming to meet me there.

I didn’t expect to meet a marine ecologist at a Dark Skies conference – surely the sea is one last sanctuary from artificial light? But no, the sea is flooded with light pollution just like every other form of pollution, and everything within it is affected. I learnt that celestial cues call coral to spawn and sand hoppers to orientate away from the tide; obscure the sky with artificial light and you mess up the cues. A whole range of aquatic and marine fish are affected in their feeding, reproduction, behavior and development, as with all aspects of the biology of wading birds. Changes in coastal street lighting are causing metabolic stress for dog whelks on the shores.

You and me both, I’m thinking, poor wee dog whelks, you have as little say as we do about the streetlights inflicted on you, and you’re not alone – we’re getting mighty metabolically stressed too!

Nobody mentions incandescent lighting, or the bulb ban. The issue feels like a lonely elephant lumbering through the hotel corridors. Is it a taboo subject, or has it been forgotten so soon? As if ‘progress’ is a one-way juggernaut that’s already left incandescent lighting far behind. The focus is on LED and improvements to in LED lighting technology because that is, we’re told, the future. Has anyone else noticed that this direction is a political decision not some law of physics? That it’s a CHOICE that’s been made on behalf of us all – and on behalf of the turtles and corals and bats and trees and flowers and wading birds, and those poor dog whelks. A choice that’s been made by those ill-equipped to do so. As so often, I feel like the wee boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes wanting to stand up and shout out the insanity of it all.

Has anyone else noticed that this direction is a political decision not some law of physics? That it’s a CHOICE that’s been made on behalf of us all – and on behalf of the turtles and corals and bats and trees and flowers and wading birds, and those poor dog whelks.

Still, I’m uplifted by utterly gorgeous astrophotography (one of my new words! I also learnt: ‘astro-tourism’ – with and without a hyphen; ‘Cultural Astronomy’ – who knew that was a thing you could do a degree in?! Had I known I think I would have done; ‘archaeoastronomy’ and ‘nyctophobia’ – a severe fear of the dark.) We saw exquisite images of swirly skies streaked with the Milky Way, of trees silhouetted against star-studded deep blue, and heard stories of star gazing around the world. (And I noticed how often the word ‘gaze’ was used. We ‘look’ at other stuff, ‘watch’ even whales, but we gaze at stars…) People remember, they said, they retain vivid experiences of pristine skies from childhood and through life – the way we remember really significant events.

It’s true – memories are floating up through me like happy bubbles as I watch and listen… girl-guide camp in north Lancashire, snug in our sleeping bags outside and staying awake most of the night just starring in amazement at the great dome of starry night above… in the hot pools in New Zealand, the water warm and the air deliciously cool, leaning back and looking up at through the curling steam at the astounding number of stars that seemed to crowd the southern skies… last winter in Pitlochry, waking the children and carrying them outside into the icy February night because the stars were so bright, ‘they really do twinkle’ said my son…

And indeed the skies did clear as the afternoon’s sessions progressed, offering a bright blue promise of clear nights ahead for those lucky enough to stay for the bat-watching and star-gazing part of the programme. I was only able to stay for 24 hours of this three-day event, getting away mid-week is a hell of a logistical feat of child-and-dog-care-coordination, and family duties called me home.

The winding roads through Dumfries and Galloway were awash with sweet autumn light and the trees all flooded with gold as I headed home that evening. It all left me longing for more, and with an ache as urgent as thirst to experience for myself the texture of that velvet darkness and the pristine skies that we’ve seen so many images of and discussed so much.

Back home some hours later, the sky in front of my house is stained by the lights of industry and the urban sprawl of Scotland’s Central Belt. I climb up to my attic office, dump my notebooks on my desk and stick my head out the velux window. Facing this way, the sky is a surprisingly rich blue, and looking into it I realise there’s one… four… a few more… just enough stars to wish upon.


Someone’s gotta do it…

I’d rather be writing about dolphins. That’s the story my fingers want to tell as they tap on this keyboard. I use words like photographers use pictures – to save moments, a means to cope with transience. My words are heading out off the Scottish coastline at the end of last summer, passing rocks splashed with graffiti-bright lichen, sun on the headland, my son’s delighted face beside me as the boat leaps and bounces over big green waves. The waves roll on forever, all rich greens and grey-blues, I’m scanning, searching, longing for a dorsal fin to break the surface. Then a wave right beside us solidifies into two sleek, grey forms, they curve and disappear… then there’s white, deep in the green below us, coming closer, it forms a face, a white chin and a smile…



But I wrench myself out of this dreamscape and set my fingers the stern task of ploughing through the mechanisms of international legislation and EU regulations, profiles of neurologists and architects, explanations of light temperatures, flicker rates, colour temperatures… oh joy. It’s sure not what I want to be doing, I’m still hoping to wake up one bright morning and find this ‘lightmare’ was all a bad dream. No one is making me or paying me to do it, but I’m driven by this gut-felt sense that someone’s gotta do it… and I have to do what I can. A sense like some Christians describe as a ‘calling’, Quakers talk of a ‘leading’, I describe it as a ‘kick up the butt’:  a shove into new territory, tasked with doing what you can, however inexperienced or ill-equipped for the task.


I started this blog mostly as a means to share my CFL story with friends and family – a means to explain what was going on. Also to seek some clarity by the process of writing, and the hope of finding resonance with others. But what happened next was that, through this blog, others began to share their stories with me… from all over the world.

I heard from Elaine in the west of Ireland:
“When the street lights come on I can’t even step into my own front garden without severe eye pain and vertigo. I hope and pray this gets resolved in our lifetime. I am 35 and living the life of an isolated 85-year-old…”

From Glen in the south of England:
“I am now unable to go into many public places such as restaurants and shops, or even visit friends in their own homes. I really fear having to leave my job and being confined to my flat at night…”

From Borek in Australia:
“At times it feels like a tiny knife cutting into my eyeballs.. on many occasions, a super bright car headlight has come into my vision, and before I could avert my gaze, there was a distinct physical pain which felt very unhealthy…”


From Andrew in London:

“LED streetlights are the real killer – totally intolerable. These nearly put me on the floor, feels like projectiles being shot through my eyes and surging up into my skull. I honestly wont be able to leave my home if these are installed…”

From Clea in the US:
“Driving under LED lights, the searing pain went deep into my head. My mind felt like it went into shock. Like a mollusc when poked, my mind felt like it went into deep contraction. I felt like I was in a microwave oven. I felt fried…”

The stories keep coming. I hear from teachers and lecturers who’ve had to leave their jobs, students who can’t continue their studies, a single mum who can’t go to her daughter’s school plays, people who go from church to church trying to find somewhere to worship, a barrister who had to leave the country because the lights in the courts “feel like someone’s clanking my head with a hammer”… And time and again people told me that the unions, the church leaders , the political representatives didn’t want to know, because they’re ‘doing their bit for the environment’.

Their stories left me with a searing sense of injustice. This isn’t a ‘misfortune’ like some horrible illness  – this is a political issue and something insanely unjust has taken place: incandescent lighting has been banned without any provision for those who cannot tolerate the alternatives.

Their stories left me with a searing sense of injustice.

Through these stories, and many more, I learned that this is way bigger than me – indeed my struggles are pretty mild compared to the horrific pain and suffering that others have to endure. And that it’s way bigger than CFLs – LEDs, halogens etc etc, are all causing troubles for some people. This is about how all light affects us all – and all of life.


And it’s bigger, even, than light – this is about politics, about democracy, accountability, about political processes, about the relationship between corporations and government, about money and profit.

I found myself in an ever-expanding universe, ever more complex and labyrinthine. Something somewhere has gone horribly wrong, as this legislation rolls out across the world, oblivious to the collateral damage of people’s pain, suffering, social exclusion and despair.

And I’ve realised that this needs something bigger in response. Bigger than blogs, bigger than Facebook groups and tweets. We need a real organisation to give these stories a real voice. To build a ‘dossier’ of our collective stories, as well as medical studies and media reports  from around the world. To gather together those missing so far from the critical decisions being made about light: the lighting designers, architects, ophthalmologists, dermatologists, psychologists…and together, to calmly, professionally shout very loud that WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT LIGHT!


That’s why I’ve been part of a team creating a new charity, LightAware. We’ve built  a vehicle to take this message forward: filling in forms, making plans, gathering trustees – we’re ready to roll. Now we need fuel to get it moving – we  need money to do the work that needs to be done. And the more we get, the further we can go. Can you help?

Here’s the weird thing. In day to day life it still feels like no-one has ever heard of light troubles, and yet, below the surface in the digital world something mycorrhizal is going on…  like an underground network of roots and spores, something is growing, more and more people seem to be reaching out to each other, forming links, sharing information like nutrients, building connections, sprouting blogs.  I get the sense of something building, ripening and ready to burst to the surface…

Now we need fuel to get it moving – we  need money to do the work that needs to be done. And the more we get, the further we can go. Can you help?

So, dear readers – I’ve no idea who most of you are, WordPress tells me where you are not who you are. Yet I can see that someone somewhere is reading this nearly every day… and I was astonished to find I have readers all over the world, from Saudi Arabia to South Korea, Philippines to Peru…No kidding!
So people all over the world must be searching, must be finding me, must be needing this somehow?

If you need this organisation as much as I do, can you help us make it happen? This is still such an unknown and under-reported issue that we’re unlikely to get mainstream funding yet. I reckon the people who will make this happen are those of us affected by new lighting, and those who care about us. If we all chip in just a small amount, we can create a powerful voice to speak for us all.

Because someone’s gotta do it…

Thank you.



We need to talk about light!


I had a cup of tea with a lighting designer today. I feel a tangible sense of relief and resonance when I talk to lighting designers. Photographers too, and artists sometimes. They get it. They know.

By this stage most of my friends are bored to tears with me talking about light. You can see their eyes glaze over as I start to rant. Or their hackles rise – it’s a touchy subject, insulting to their conviction that they’ve bought ‘good’, ‘green’ light bulbs.

But lighting designers get it. Not necessarily the health stuff, or the ideological stuff or the mechanisms of European legislation stuff, but they get the crux of it all: that light matters. Light matters fundamentally and absolutely and every all-encompassing word I can muster at this hour of the night…

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – many times over :  Light doesn’t just illuminate our surroundings, it forms our surroundings, it is our surroundings – it creates the world that we perceive.
And thus the quality of light affects the quality of our lives: every single waking moment. Indeed every sleeping moment too, as light has profound effects on the duration and quality of sleep. Everything.

And yet, we – as a society – are astonishingly unaware of it. We get the gist: some sudden sunshine and the school run is full of smiling faces, feeling upbeat and uplifted by the ‘happy’ light, but in general we put up with rubbish light, don’t pay attention to the difference.


How else could this be happening, to Scotland, to Europe, to the whole world? How could this legislation keep on coming, thundering along like a great cumbersome tank, crushing incandescent light bulbs in every shape and form – the main source of warm, bright, light in our long, dark winter months. Now even what we thought we had left: halogens, ‘rough trade’ incandescents and those jazzy ones in fancy cafes are to be legislated away. And what are we left with? Light that is colder and harsher and potentially harmful…

There are months when indoor workers go to work in the dark and come home in the dark, living almost exclusively under artificial light. The quality of that light matters to the quality of their lives.


I don’t know who these guys are in Brussels who are making these decisions. I don’t know if they’re motivated by environmental concern or corporate interest. I don’t know how something so important can be legislated away so quickly and with so little debate or scrutiny. But this much I do know: light is way too important and too precious to be left to them.

The people making the decisions about the quality of light are just not qualified to do so. It’s not just about economy and efficiency. We need the rest of the conversation: to bring in architects, artists, photographers, planners, educators, politicians, policy makers, prison officers, doctors, dermatologists, neurologists, opticians, opthalmologists, psychologists… and we sure need those lighting designers. They think of light like a composer thinks of sound, or an artist of colour, it’s their palette and their medium, to create and to conjour with. Most importantly, they have the vocabulary to articulate what we feel but cannot describe.

Vast global decisions are being made about the quality of artificial light as if there were only two things to consider: energy efficiency (and, mind, this is only for the time it’s switched on in your light fitting; the energy use involved in materials, manufacture and disposal are not taken into account) and economy. I’m not saying these things aren’t important. I’m saying many other things are important too:wordle blog

Light affects all this and more. In ways we’re only beginning to understand. Yet we’re messin’ with something with no understanding of the consequences.

We need a national conversation about light. International too – the whole world is in this together. But here in Scotland, like other countries at this kinda latitude, we feel it particularly acutely. We pay for our glorious light summers with long, dark, ‘dreich’ winters. There are months when indoor workers go to work in the dark and come home in the dark, living almost exclusively under artificial light. The quality of that light matters to the quality of their lives.

And we all need to join in this conversation, not to be put off if we are not ‘experts’ and don’t understand the physics, or the physiology or the politics of it all. Who does? You don’t need to understand the physics of sound waves to feel the power of music. Every cell in our body is responding to light and we need to listen to that response. If something feels ‘wrong’, maybe that’s because it is.

I’m ranting I know, but can I say it one more time, in great big shouty capital letters:



The murky business of mercury


There’s a long silence on the other end of the phone.
“Oh…um… I’m not sure,” comes the reply.
I wait. I’m calling the Waste Management Team of my local Council here in Central Scotland. I’ve asked them what to do with spent CFL bulbs.
“I’ll just put you on hold…”
Eventually she returns with the hesitant guidance: “it’s the black recycling box”.

I do a straw poll among friends and family around the UK, noone seems to know what to do with CFLs once they’re spent. A few have a hunch they shouldn’t go in the normal waste, and have a wee stack by the back door awaiting further information. Some chuck them in the bin. I call a national hardware chain, which sells them: “What should I do once they’re spent or broken?”
I’m advised to take them to a local recycling centre or dump for special disposal of things with harmful components.
“Harmful?” I ask. “Is there any danger from broken bulbs?”
“No, there’s nothing that’s harmful to yourself, Just make sure the glass is cleared up – put it all in a box and take it to your local recycling centre,” he says.

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The issue here is mercury: fluorescent bulbs use mercury to make light. So each CFL bulb contains a tiny, weeny amount of mercury (about 4 milligrams). I’m trying to find out more about the issues around this mercury, the potential danger of a household breakage or in the wider environment – and I’m confused!


Mercury. Even the word is powerful – potent in imagery as well as a substance. There can’t be many elements with such cosmic grandeur or metaphorical resonance. It’s made its mark on childhood memories: the cautious reverence with which mercury thermometers were carried like unexploded grenades, or the thrill of ‘chasing’ blobs of mercury around the desk during chemistry lessons at school.


My scientific pals warn that, having more grasp of metaphor than science, I’m seizing on this weighty resonance and jumping too fast to conclusions: mercury is dangerous + these bulbs contain mercury = these bulbs are Bad. Others more embroiled in current environmental debate dismiss my concerns by explaining the ‘mercury paradox’ that the energy reduction from CFL use actually means less mercury from coal-fired power stations. Other pals ask if my CFL troubles are caused by the mercury in the bulbs: does it leak out? Not as far as I know, but, like I say, I’m confused.

The NHS guidance is calm: ‘extremely unlikely to cause problems for your health’ but ‘sensible’ to take precautions when clearing up a broken bulb.

Whereas the US Environment Protection Agency suggests more urgent precautions: getting people and pets out of the room and shutting off heating/air conditioning:

So what is safe? Seems this is relative: what’s ok for an adult could cause irreparable brain damage in an infant or unborn baby. Surely there should be some kind of guidance or warnings on the packaging? There are CFLs throughout my local health centre, where pregnant ladies and new born babies come for their check ups, I wonder if they have procedures in place in the event of a breakage?

There have been reported incidents of mercury poisoning at Chinese factories where these bulbs are made, and at waste disposal sites in England. If this is a problem in the UK, what happens in less developed countries without adequate waste infrastructure? CFLs are being heavily promoted around the world, WWF celebrates its evangelism of energy saving light bulbs in places of remote, wild beauty like Madagascar, but are these places equipped to cope with mercury in their waste?

In March India Today reported that waste from CFLs had accumulated to toxic levels with widespread confusion about what to do with spent CFLS
While press report (and rappers rap on the recent mercury scandal from Unilever thermometers in India, could this be another scandal in the making?

There’s a barrel load of mercury information from The Zero Mercury Working Group, an international coalition working – as the name suggests – towards the elimination of mercury.

Here I read about danger of mercury, a potent neurotoxin which can be released during the CFL manufacturing process, transportation and disposal, through breakage where installed, or stored and even when recycled.

And… drum roll, that a new EU Directive bans the use of certain hazardous chemicals, including mercury in all new equipment marketed after July 2006. Wowee – my heart does a wee cartwheel, could this be the end of my CFL misery?Happy-Fall-Snoopy-5

Alas no. Can you believe it – there is a specific exemption for CFLs.


Seems the reasoning is that mercury is necessary to make fluorescent lighting. And it hasn’t occurred to this vast international body of expertise that maybe fluorescent lighting itself is not ‘necessary’. I read that global expertise is being pooled and resources harnessed in a drive to develop more efficient lighting technologies without mercury…

I’ve got a better idea. How about bring back incandescent lighting? Use it sparingly. Dim it where appropriate. Create bulbs that last longer. And, most importantly, switch it off! USE DAYLIGHT wherever possible. You wouldn’t believe the trouble I have in bright sunny days getting people to switch their ‘energy-saving’ lighting OFF…


In the meantime, there’s ongoing confusion, whether in India and Scotland, about what to do with spent light bulbs… Seems to me that CFLs need statutory labeling so that all those dealing with them – whether retailers, consumers or refuse workers, have some guidance.

I phone my local council again (in the interests of research of course, I don’t have the nasty things in my home any more) and ask what to do with spent CFL bulbs
“Just put them in the green bin,” I’m told (this is our general refuse, on its way to land fill).
I say I’m a bit worried about this, what happens to them then? What if they break?
There’s a silence at the other end of the phone.
“Why? Is there anything dangerous about them?” she asks.

Beauty and the Beast


A glimmer of a silver lining in the doom-laden grey cloud of CFL troubles is an acute awareness of light. In the two years since becoming ‘light sensitive’ I’ve become utterly light obsessed. The downside is well documented here. It includes the cumbersome bore of having to check out the lighting before I can go anywhere, I’ve developed a ‘silly walk’ that would qualify for Monty Python as I enter shop doorways or friend’s houses – stooping down then peering up to see what light fixtures are there.

But on the upside is an enthralled delight and enhanced appreciation of the beauty of natural light. Real light. I find myself standing for ages just gazing at sunlight on wood, on water, on white walls, on skin. I think I might become a sun worshipper. I walk in the woods or sit in the garden and think in wonder about how light powers all of life on Earth through the miracle of photosynthesis.

plants-light-620x413Here in Central Scotland there’s a great surging crescendo of light at this time of year and I bask on it on these lovely long spring evenings. I stand on the doorstep drinking in the light sky (until the fluorescent street lights flicker on and chase me back indoors… )

In my first blog I asked ‘In the face of the cataclysmic prospect of global warming, who could bicker about aesthetics?’ But I’m coming round to thinking that the importance of aesthetics is underrated. Beauty isn’t a trivial luxury but fundamental to our wellbeing. And beauty is all about light.

Try this: put a CFL in the bedroom and look at naked skin beneath it – whether your own or someone else’s! Under such grim fluorescent lighting skin looks thin, tinged with blueish-grey, cold, veined and dull. Then switch off the ghastly thing and light a candle. Skin is transformed: soft and warm, gold-tinged and enticing. So which is real? Which is true? Light doesn’t just illuminate our surroundings, it forms our surroundings, it is our surroundings – it creates the world that we perceive.

men in motion

Lighting designers know this, of course, and use light to create whole worlds and moods and emotions. The Association of Lighting Designers’ Save Tungsten Campaign – toc2 describe the importance of incandescent lighting as a vital tool in their creative world:

Stage lighting is telling stories with light . . .

half way to the other side

…We must have flexible light; light that can be warm or cool; light that can be ever-so dim or blindingly bright, light that can subtly or brashly change its characteristics, full wave-length light that can truly reveal every color in the spectrum; but most of all, beautifully illuminate the human face, the humanity, which lies at the heart of all our work.

museum of waterAt the present time, that means that the incandescent lamp is an essential weapon in the designers’ arsenal . . . it cannot be done without.”


I’m currently re-reading C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books with my son and had a wee smile at this description of the Deep Realm of the ‘Underland’ where the light is ‘cold, grey with a little blue in it’, ‘gloomy’ and ‘dreary’ and ‘cheerless’… Now what does that remind me of?!

But along a corridor in an underground castle:
“Oh joy! there was an archway filled with a quite different sort of light; the honest, yellowish, warm light of such a lamp as humans use”…

‘The humanity’, ‘light such as humans use’… it all resonates, with this sense that new fluorescent lighting isn’t real, isn’t right for humans. I’ve heard CFLs described as ‘only fit for morgues, dentists and waiting rooms’… ‘like peering through murky pond water’… ‘poor light, in every sense of the word’. A photographer friend of mine said: “I can’t explain what I don’t like about them, just this immediate sense of something wrong. It’s the wrong light.”

I’ve spent too much of this sunny afternoon online browsing forums and trying to get my head around the physics and politics of this crazy story. Still trying, and mostly failing, to understand it. I can’t tell you much about frequencies and flickers and light temperatures, or the mechanisms of EU legislation. But I can tell you this for sure: CFLs are ugly. Pig ugly. And light matters, immensely and profoundly, to every waking moment of our lives. And ugly light impoverishes us all.

Theatre photos from

2) Brian Slater, Half Way to the Other Side, The Patrick Centre, then touring for Company Decalage. Lighting by Antony Hateley
3) Ruth Corne, Museum of Water, Somerset House for Arts Admin, Lighting by Marty Langthorne

Are LEDs OK?

I’d be getting rich by now if I had a penny for every time someone says: “Hey don’t worry, CFLs are on their way out anyway…technology’s moving on: LEDs are the future!” LED LED2 Even more often I’m asked: “Are LEDs ok?” My answer is both yes and no. Yes, for me, for now – if I’m coming to your house for a cuppa, or going to the hairdressers, or getting the train to London, I’ll be fine. Some really bright ones make me feel nauseous and a bit weird, but I’m not aware of any lasting effects. I know I’m lucky, and that this may change, three years ago I was ‘ok’ with CFLs, now I’m debilitated by them. But in the bigger picture ‘are LEDs ok?’ the answer is a resounding ‘No!”. No times two. The first ‘No’ is because others are not ok with them, they also make people seriously ill with symptoms including blinding headaches, severe eye pain, nausea and migraine. The most frequent response I get to this blog is ‘it’s not just CFLs that make people ill’. This one, from Elaine in Ireland, hit me hard:

Hi Anna,

I read your blog on the trouble with CFL lighting. I am extremely sensitive to LED lighting both indoor and outdoor. They have been erected outside my home and now I can’t even step in to my own front garden without symptoms of severe eye pain, migraine, nausea, vomiting, aura, vertigo, increased heart rate and ringing in my ears. It hits me immediately and the severity and length of symptoms depend on the length of time I’m exposed. 
I have known for 7 or 8 years of this extreme intolerance to LED when I first got a DS Lite, back-lit with LED and I couldn’t bare to look at it. I can’t use any LED backlit phones or monitors. I don’t think that my symptoms are getting worse but my recovery period is now non existent because LED is everywhere. If I am round CFL for a prolonged period I develop headache and agitation but nothing like the symptoms I have around LED.

I am in the process of writing to our MPs, TDs, Health Service, local newspapers etc etc here in Ireland to see if something can be done about this.
It was good to read your article, I don’t wish this on anyone but it helps to know I’m not alone. I found it so hard to find info a number of years ago but the further we move away from the incandescent bulb the higher the number rises of light sensitive people. Hope and pray that this gets resolved in our lifetime. I am a 35 year old living the life of an isolated 85 year old.  
Take care, Elaine imprisoned The second ‘No’ because senior medics have raised serious concerns about the effects of LEDs on human health, especially on eyes, skin and sleep. Many scientific studies already show that LEDs are implicated in the current epidemic of sleeping problems, particularly among young people who spend many evening hours exposed to LED-lit screens. Here are a few that I’ve come across, trawl the web and you’ll find many more:–-light-emitting-diodes
insomnia What I’m grasping from my Googling and browsing is that blue light in LEDs disrupts the body’s ‘circadian rhythm’, or body clock, which regulates sleep by telling the body to wake up in the morning and wind down in the evening. And the circadian rhythm is not just about sleep but the many, many physiological processes which are supposed to happen while we sleep, such as cell renewal and blood sugar regulation, so there are wider implications for cancer and diabetes and many more health issues. This technology is so new, I wonder if any studies have gone on long enough to really understand the long-term implications of new forms of lighting on human health?

And what about other new light forms? Are they ok? There are so many different lights around now and so much confusion. Most public places have a complete mix of lighting and so few can tell you what they have – it’s just not a vocabulary that people have yet.

The issues raised in this blog apply to all new forms of lighting. There may be differences in technology – different ‘temperatures’, flickers, percentage of blue light, etc – but the moral issues are the same. This is a major issue of social exclusion and surely an infringement of basic human rights. I read Elaine’s message and felt a searing sense of the injustice of this situation, and incredulous that new lighting is still perceived as ‘good’ and ‘green’. How is it morally defensible to enforce a technology onto people that makes them so ill? If LEDs are the future, what future do people like Elaine have? What happens to people’s lives if we use this light for offices, for shops, for churches, for public transport, for petrol stations, for streetlights…? How can people shop, visit friends, travel, work, study…even sleep?

There may be differences in technology… but the moral issues are the same. This is a major issue of social exclusion and surely an infringement of basic human rights.


I’ve been heartened in recent weeks by comments from friends and family on a UK petition calling for a review of the health and environmental impact of new lighting and to overturn the absolute ban on incandescent lightbulbs. (Please sign if you’re in the UK!)
One friend shared the petition on Facebook with a simple message that says it all:
“…easy to ignore if it doesn’t affect you, but imagine if it did…”


“Wow that’s weird!” Is the response I most often get when I tell people about my problems with CFLs and new fluorescent lighting. I’ve also had plenty raised eyebrows, skeptical frowns and, a few times, hysterical laughter, but mostly that emphatic “…weird”. And I must admit I normally preface my explanations with “this is a weird one, but…” by way of preparing the ground, a request to stretch and open your mind a bit, be receptive to something you may not have heard about before. But then last night I couldn’t sleep – stewing again in waves of anger and anxiety about this issue – when I had a ‘ding’ of realization – a ‘light bulb moment’ (sorry!). Suddenly I realised it’s not all that weird at all… plants-light-620x413 Because light interacts with life in profound yet incredibly subtle and complex ways. All of life: every living organism translates the energy of light into the chemical language of cells. Light tells plants which way to grow and birds which way to fly and when to sing. Different quality of light carries different messages, telling the entire animal kingdom when to sleep and wake and reproduce. Every cell in our brain and bodies is affected. This isn’t so new or unknown at all. Sleepy_seal_pup_by_Shadow_and_Flame_86 So I feel skeptical myself when medics say they have no idea what’s going on. Maybe what they’re actually saying is they don’t understand the physics or the particular new technology used in CFLs. So they sometimes treat it as if sufferers are deluded or as if there’s some weird, unknown illness that we don’t yet know enough about to do anything about. But so much is already known about light. We know it experientially and we know it scientifically. We KNOW that different types of light can: burn; blind; heal; frighten; enchant; intimidate; interrogate; seduce; stimulate; intrigue; uplift …we know light can evoke elation, depression, anxiety, sleep, wonder…we know it can kill. We know that different qualities of light have profound effects on the human brain, and skin, and nerves and mood. We know it can screw up or re-set your body clock and all the complex hormonal interactions that go with it. Commercial environments exploit this knowledge, using light to depress us or uplift us, whichever will make us spend more. Lighting designers conjure with it, creating worlds of moods and evocations. Light is powerful stuff.

So what can we extrapolate about CFLs, seeing as how we already know all this? As far as I’ve deduced there are three main aspects of CFLs that may cause problems:

1) A high ‘spike’ in UV light. Again there’s nothing new there: we know plenty about the damage UV can cause to skin and eyes. In this Canadian film  researchers found that working in close proximity to a CFL gives a day’s dose of UV in just 3 hours. Australian researchers (!po=18.7500) have highlighted that this is a particular risk in northern countries where people are exposed to so much artificial light through long winters. Such as Scotland in December.

2) A very, very high frequency flicker. New fluorescent lighting flickers at such a very high rate and this is supposed to be imperceptible. But research by the University of Essex shows that the brain and eyes can be affected by flicker (with associated headaches, discomfort and impaired vision ) at higher frequencies than we can perceive. We know flickering lighting such as strobes can induce epilepsy, even in people who haven’t previously had this condition (I’m not saying it’s the same as strobe lighting – but that we know from this issue that flickers can mess with your brain!)

3) High levels of electro-magnetic radiation. Now this is a new one on me, I hadn’t really got my head around this issue – partly because it sounded too physicsy and complex to grasp what on earth it is. Partly because those more physics-grasping than me had reassured me that this stuff is natural and everywhere, so not to worry about it. Then I watched this film. Yeech. Swiss researchers had measured the electro-magnetic energy around CFLs and found it within, but close to, the legal limit. But the legal limit had been set by measuring what EMR did to the air around it. But the air, as they point out, is not the issue – it’s what it does to the human body and nervous system that’s relevant, and they show this graphically in this film. As I said: yeeeech. cfl2 SO – in one wee CFL light bulb we’ve got things that mess with your nervous system, brain and head, skin and eyes. It’s maybe not such a complete surprise then, that people using CFLs report problems with nervous system, brain and head, skin and eyes. Now I know it’s easy to think that if something is harmful for you it is therefore ‘Bad’ altogether and should be avoided by everyone. I know plenty of people who feel this way about wheat, gluten, dairy… And cats. Understandably my friends don’t take kindly to me coming at them like an evangelical prophet of doom, waving my arms and ranting about macular degeneration, skin cancer and an assault on the nervous system. Especially those friends who’ve just had these lights installed in their homes or businesses at high cost and in good faith.

“Understandably my friends don’t take kindly to me coming at them like an evangelical prophet of doom, waving my arms and ranting about macular degeneration, skin cancer and an assault on the nervous system…”

But here’s what I think. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with me, but something seriously wrong with these lights. I think they’re toxic. To me immediately and explicitly. To others slowly and insidiously. Sure some people are more sensitive and more susceptible, maybe because of a genetic disposition or other conditions which make them more vulnerable. Just as not everyone working with asbestos gets asbestosis, not everyone that smokes gets lung cancer. I wonder how many people are suffering from migraines, headaches, skin problems, anxiety, dizziness or nausea and have no idea that CFLs could be causing these problems.

“So what’s it called?” people ask, “this strange condition you suffer from? Is it genetic? Is it contagious? I’ve never heard of it, it must be so rare…”
“It hasn’t got a name,” I mumble “they just call it light sensitive”. And I used to wonder, too – is there something really weird about me? But now I’m not so sure there is. Yup I’m light sensitive. And so are you. Just like the rest of life on Earth.

So what happens to you?

snoopyblehI feel a twinge of discomfort sitting down to blog about my health and the physical symptoms of CFL troubles. Maybe I’m concerned that it sounds like self pity, which it isn’t. I know I’m lucky – most people I’ve encountered who struggle with these lights suffer far worse problems than me: migraines and severe headaches, fainting, collapsing, joint pain, burnt skin…
And I work from home and so can continue doing what I do, which so many others can’t.
No, if I wake in the night thinking ‘why me?’ it’s not self pity but just a mind boggle at the sheer weirdness of it: being ‘allergic’ to a form of light, who’d ever have thought that was possible? Sounds more like some kind of science fiction nightmare than my life.

But whenever I try to explain CFL troubles to anyone they ask “So what happens to you?”; and when I’m in touch with a fellow sufferer they ask “So what happens to YOU?”. There are such a diverse range of symptoms caused by CFLs, and so little explanation as to why. But surely these symptoms are all pieces of a big puzzle and if someone, somewhere could put them together, maybe at last they would see the bigger picture and understand this new lighting is damaging human health?

So, for the record, here’s my pieces of that puzzle:

What symptoms do you experience when exposed to these lights?
The symptoms are very consistent, and culmulative
– firstly a tingling sensation on my lips, then tongue
– a ‘prickling’ sensation of hot or cold on my scalp, from the direction of the lights
– feeling agitated and panicky, shaking inside like after an electric shock
– sudden urgent thirst
– nausea
– confused and disorientated (loss of words etc)
– sensation as if my head is in two separate halves and swollen, pushing against my skull as if someone is blowing a balloon up inside my head.

How long do the symptoms last?
The severity is proportionate to the amount of time I’ve been exposed, as is the time it takes to recover. The nausea, confusion and shakeyness can last a few days. After exposure I feel ‘stinging’ like light sunburn on my face and lips, which can last more than 24 hours, even after a short (10 mins) exposure.
On the night after exposure to CFLs (regardless of how long I’ve been exposed) I normally experience the following symptoms, even if I’ve felt ok in the evening:
– a sensation that my tongue is swollen and too big for my mouth
– constant intense thirst
– disturbing dreams
– dreams that I am vomiting (though don’t in reality)
– pressure on my head
– very deep sleep
In the morning I feel as if hungover: groggy, thirsty, bleary and nauseous.

Hung Over


Is it just fluorescent lighting that causes these problems?
Yes, but after exposure to CFLs I become sensitised to other lighting (though not bright sunlight or incandescent bulbs). For a few days after exposure I ‘flinch’ from halogen lights and feel nauseous under LEDs. If I haven’t been exposed to CFLs, I’m ok with these other lights.

When did this begin?
In April 2013 at a conference centre in Birmingham. I felt the above symptoms as soon as the lights were switched on each day, increasing in intensity the longer I stayed exposed to them. I worked at a computer in the evening with a large fluorescent light low and directly behind me. At night the back of my head was burning so intensely that I got up at 4.00 in the morning and wrapped wet towels around my head as if it was sunburn.

Did you have any problems with these lights before then?
I have often felt irritation, building to agitation and aggression when exposed to CFL lights, and an animal-like urge to escape from them, but no physical symptoms previously. I have been to the same conference centre twice a year for the last 5 years without any problems.

Have you found anything that makes a difference?
Wearing a thick felt hat can postpone the symptoms for a short time (5 or 10 minutes) and protects from the tingling/prickling sensation on my scalp. Sunglasses don’t help.

So, that’s what happens to me. I’d be really interested to hear what happens to you?

These Summer Nights

anna and elsa“The sky’s awake, so I’m awake, so we have to play…” Anna from Disney’s Frozen 

Anyone trying to get kids to sleep at this latitude through these summer months doesn’t need a psychology professor or a neurologist to tell them that light has a profound effect on our mood, thoughts and energy levels.

It’s 9.30pm here in Central Scotland, the sky is blue, the birds are singing – and so are my two young children who I tried to put to bed over an hour ago. I’ve been in twice to shush them and snuggle them in, but as soon as the door shuts they leap up singing “UP jumped the scarecrow…” in peals of giggles.

I’d be getting cross if they weren’t so cute, and I know they’re getting mixed messages: mummy is saying ‘it’s late, go to sleep’, but the delicious yellow light sneaking in all around the edges of their bedroom blinds is saying ‘summer’s afternoon = fun = good times = happiness’. So we have to play…

It can’t help but set me thinking about the effects of different forms of light on our body clocks and our mood. Please bear with me as I blog my way through a stumbling journey into utterly foreign territory – physics and myself parted company when I was just 14 years old, after only crossing paths at high school for a few torturous years. I didn’t understand it then and I sure don’t now. But my troubles with CFLs mean that I’m now having to try to get to grips with the vocabulary of light – its spectrums and wavelengths, temperatures, frequencies and flickers…

So, in so far as I’ve grasped it, the colour of light goes in a spectrum from ultraviolet (UV) to infrared (IR). And one of the many concerns about CFLs, and their effects on our minds, brains, skin and general physiology, is to do with the predominance of the blue end of the light spectrum, and in particular a ‘spike’ in the blue light. This diagram from US website Popular Mechanics really helped me to visualise this:

spike graph

There has been a fair bit of concern and research into the effects of too much blue light – or blue light at the ‘wrong’ time of day. Most of this seems to focus on LEDs in electronic screens, and in particular the excessive use of TV and computers in the evening upsetting the body clock, or circadian rhythm, and causing an epidemic of sleep problems. I found a lot of information on blue light here:
But I haven’t yet managed to find any research on how the blue light in CFLs is affecting us – if you know of any please let me know.

I’m not pretending to understand it – I’d previously thought blue light was a ‘good thing’ and what those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) were lacking. Maybe it’s a questions of balance, maybe it’s that ‘spike’ that’s the problem, or the weird way CFLs jump in the spectrum without the smooth curve of sunlight?

I’m no scientist and I can’t tell you much about the physics or the physiology, all I know about light is from my own experience:

  • – that sunshine makes me happy
  • – that things look different in a different light
  • – that people look beautiful in candlelight
  • – that people have warmer conversations around an open fire
  • – that fluorescent strip lights make me anxious and irritable
  • – that fluorescent lights, including CFLs, make people look ugly
  • – that CFLs make me feel edgy, jittery, with a deep sense of unease, moving swiftly on to nausea and confusion…

More research in neurology, psychology and dermatology and is urgently needed to really understand what it is about CFLs that causes so many problems to so many people. But in the meantime, while we await clarity from the scientists, maybe we need to tell them what we already know?

How many anecdotes does it take to change a light bulb?

Ever tried to phone a company about a problem, only to be passed from department to department – being put on hold for aeons in between – only to have each department take your details and hear your story all over again, then say it’s not their problem, and could you please hold while they put you through to yet another…

That’s how it feels seeking medical information about trouble with CFL lighting. I’m lucky to have a GP who listens, who has tested me for everything under the sun and referred me down every potential specialist route, including dermatology, neurology and psychology…

But the dermatologist says my problem is not dermatological, the neurologist says it’s not neurological and the psychologist says it’s not psychological…and none of them can find anything wrong with me. Which, I suspect, is because there is nothing at all wrong with me, but something seriously wrong with these CFL lights.

So where do you go from here? Seems to me the real problem is that not enough research has been done and not enough is yet known. There aren’t enough peer-reviewed published scientific papers to prove that there are health problems caused by this new form of lighting. And so we’re trapped in a vicious circle – because the research isn’t there, the case isn’t proven, but the research needs to be done to prove that research needs to be done…

So in the meantime I’m an ‘anomaly’ and my problems are ‘anecdotal’. Hey, I’m Anna the anecdotal anomaly! But there are anecdotes like me all over the world. Is there a critical mass of anecdotes, which would force the acknowledgement of this issue as a real health problem?

People suffering from this new fluorescent lighting mostly fall into three categories: skin problems (burning, blistering, rashes); head problems (pain, migraine, dizziness, coordination problems, fainting); and eye problems (pain, damage to retina), some experience a mix of all of these.

With skin and eyes, there are medics seriously concerned. There has been published research that these lights can damage skin – the Photosensitivity Unit at Dundee University are on the case with this one, and have published studies showing that CFLs aggravate the skin of some people with light-sensitive conditions, and of healthy people with no previous condition. And senior ophthalmologists warn of damage to eyes, Professor John Marshall of the University College London was quoted in the Daily Mail last month as saying that CFLs “exacerbate the risk” of cataracts and macular degeneration. I’m not aware of any published neurological studies – please let me know if you know of any.

But is anyone anywhere looking at the bigger picture – drawing these different fields of medicine together to assess what these lights are doing to our bodies as a whole? Does Dermatology talk to Neurology, and do either consult with Physics?

Someone, somewhere must be able to join the dots between these different symptoms and tell us what on earth is going on.

Instead of being told there is no evidence that there is a problem, can we turn the question around and ask manufacturers and legislators: where is the evidence that these lights are safe for human health?