Warning labels on your light bulbs

Electric lights have made the world safer and made people smarter, but can they also hurt our health?

Story highlights

  • A company says it will put warning labels on its packaging for lights telling customers "exposure to certain electric lights may cause biological effects"
  • Seeing electric lights at the wrong time of day can have negative health consequences -- it can keep you from sleeping and interrupt your body's natural production of melatonin
  • Sleep loss and melatonin suppression are linked to obesity, heart problems, diabetes, depression and even death

(CNN)The light bulb always makes the world's top inventions lists.

It makes us more productive. It deters crime. It's allowed New York to become the "city that never sleeps." And yet, more than just Manhattenites are failing to get their zzz's because of electric lighting, and there is growing body of scientific evidence that electric lighting may be hurting our health.
    Scientists have talked about this for years, but now a lighting company is about to point that out to every single one of its customers. And they are doing it voluntarily. What's the catch?
    The company, Florida based Lighting Science Group does make a line of biological lighting that it says can be a better fit for your health than a traditional light bulb. Their idea is that you should get the right light for the right time. So they sell a product that is supposed to be better for bedtime, and another to help you feel more awake. But with this announcement, Fred Maxik, the company's chief science officer, seems to want something more. He wants a revolution in the lighting industry.
    "We are hopeful that the industry will follow us on this" Maxik said. He believes the company is being proactive to let the public know "there is a growing body of scientific evidence that delivering light at the wrong time of day" that has serious negative health consequences. "We are saying to the public this is something you should be aware of. We aren't saying 'Don't use light,' we are saying 'Why take the risk?' "
    The packing on every one of their products will carry a "Notice" that "exposure to certain electric lights may cause biological effects, some potentially disruptive." Underneath the message is a website that will provide education material that spells out the potential negative health effects of artificial light.
    "We are not the only folks in this industry with this information and we understand it will continue to be a problem," Maxik said.
    We called to ask other companies about this idea, but none returned our calls by our deadline.
    We did talk to some outside scientists about the idea and they were intrigued by the possibility.
    "I think it is a good idea, sure," said Paolo Sassone-Corsi. He is the director of the Center of Epigenetics and Metabolism at the school of medicine at University of California Irvine and has authored studies about metabolism, the circadian clock and the negative impact of artificial light.
    He would like to see more than that short notice though. People may not be as apt to check a website, perhaps, the packaging could include more detail about the harm, he suggests. And he adds just because people would be more aware of lighting, won't fix the entire problem.
    People need to also be aware of even more powerful high energy light sources like TV screens and computers he said. "And think about how many people look at Facebook at 2 a.m. That is way more disruptive, but this is certainly a good start we need to keep increasing awareness in a larger population that light at the wrong time of day can harm you," Sassone-Corsi said.
    Scientific studies have shown that artificial light can have a damaging impact on your health. Just how much is still unclear, but exposure to certain types of light can interrupt your sleep, it can change your circadian rhythms, and intensify migraine symptoms, among other problems. Sleep deprivation is blamed for everything from obesity, to diabetes, to depression, to memory loss, to short attention spans, to cancer, to car accidents or to even death.
    With electric light inspired circadian rhythm disorders, the fancy term for when your internal body clock gets messed up and you cannot sleep or cannot sleep well, the good news is the problem is not permanent. Body clocks can adjust, as shown when humans camp far away from electric lights, according to another study.
    Exposure to electric light can suppress your body's melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone your pineal gland releases a few hours before you would normally go to sleep. Sometimes called the "Dracula of hormones" it only comes out in the dark. When it does, it makes you feel sleepy and a little less alert. Low melatonin production is also associated with obesity and metabolic syndrome. Melatonin also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory functions. It plays a crucial role in good cardiovascular health.
    Dr. Louis Sullivan, the founder of the Morehouse School of Medicine and the former national Health and Human Services secretary has been talking to the public about light exposure for years. Lighting Science Group brought him on as a spokesman. He equates exposure to the wrong light at the wrong time with serious public health issues that are on par with obesity, smoking, and seat belt use. All three have seen some success after public health campaigns raised awareness about the problems, he said. Warning labels on lighting, are a good start.
    "I think this information that has been given to the public this way could have an important impact on health," Sullivan said. "There is ample data that such warnings can save lives."
    But do warning labels actually work? The scientific literature has been mixed over the years, but a recent scientific literature review of past studies on the found that warnings do "influence behavior" and that consumers are "more likely to comply when they are familiar with a product," according to the study that ran in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.
    Certainly everyone buys light bulbs, so maybe it will work. The question is whether people will actually read the notices? That is a little less clear.
    "I'm really hopeful this will make a difference," Maxik said.