Halogen lamps

I see that you recently did an issue about creating a healthy home environment (WDDTY, vol 10, no 1). In the article, you didn't mention anything about halogen lamps. Someone recently told me that halogen lighting has been banned in California. Can you tell me if this is true? Is it due to the electromagnetic fields? If so, what are the safest types of lights to have?-BK, East Sheen......

Halogen is the latest trendy form of lighting, replacing track lighting as the darling of decorators, particularly in the kitchen, bathroom or in public places such as restaurants and offices. Halogen floor lamps, known as "halogen torchiere lamps", are also extremely popular with students, providing a focused light far more intense than incandescent lighting. Halogen lamps are now a popular supplement to the poor fluorescent lighting of university dormitories.

These floor lights are built with an upright open shade containing a tubular halogen bulb and a thin glass guard over it to catch the pieces in case the bulb shatters.

The recent concern over halogen lamps has to do with their potential as a fire hazard specifically their propensity to ignite anything within reach that's combustible. In America, where an estimated 30 to 40 million torchiere style halogen floor lamps are currently in use, the lamps have been responsible for some 189 fires and at least 11 deaths since 1991, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Jazz legend Lionel Hampton's home was destroyed when a halogen lamp caught fire. In Albany, New York, a halogen torchiere lamp caused a fire which injured two young children. And one firefighter died in the blaze at an American university dormitory, which caught fire after a halogen lamp tipped over, igniting a hung tapestry.

Unlike the common standard lamp, which employs incandescent bulbs of between 60 to 100 watts, halogen floor lamps have bulbs with 300 to 500 watts or roughly five to ten times more power. According to the CPSC, the lamps can generate ceiling temperatures of up to 1,200 degrees.

The biggest problems tend to be caused when fabric is draped over the lamps or when they come in contact with curtains. Students in particular are notorious for draping clothing over lamps, or leaving them in contact with fabric and other combustibles.

In the UK, several fires have started when overhead halogen lights were too close to objects in the room. One such fire occurred, says UK lighting specialist Christopher Wray, when a customer positioned one of his recessed low voltage lights too near a kitchen cabinet.

Besides the problem of the intense heat generated by these lamps, there is also their propensity to tip over. "Our tests showed that it required only 17 ounces of force applied to the brass rung, which is 46 inches from the floor, to tip," says New York state fire administrator James Burns.

In America, the CPSC, which is currently investigating 31 fires directly linked to halogen floor lamps, has the authority to look into product defects. Nevertheless, it doesn't set the standard for halogen lamps. That job falls to Underwires Laboratories, an industry funded group which sets a safety standard that is basically voluntary.

In the wake of all the fires, several American universities, such as the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, have banned torchiere style halogen lamps. Other universities will only allow halogen lamps that meet certain standards into residence halls. A number of bodies in the US and the UK have modified the specifications for floor and ceiling halogen lighting. In America, after February 5, 1997, Underwriters Labs began requiring halogen floor lamps to go through a much tougher safety test. However, one independent lab, Inchcape Testing Services, tested three varieties of the new floor lamps to see if the new safety features, such as lower wattage, made a difference to their potential to cause fires.

In the test, a lamp with a 300 watt bulb is left on for 15 minutes and a double layer of cheesecloth, which is highly flammable, is draped over the top of the lamp. If it doesn't catch fire in seven hours, the lamp passes the test with flying colours.

Nevertheless, in the recent Inchcape test, the first lamp caused the cheesecloth to go up in flames in 34 seconds; in the second, holes burned through the cheesecloth in 16 seconds, and in the third, the cheesecloth caught fire in 25 seconds. And this among lamps that were recently redesigned to meet the new safety standards!

With halogen ceiling lamps, the main concern is not only what is under the lamps, but also what is above them; fires have started when the lamp is positioned near floor insulation, which is also highly flammable.

Less well known than the fire hazards are the problems of low level radiation. Alistair Philips at Powerwatch says that all halogen lights, whether free standing or embedded in the ceiling, require low voltage transformers (12, 24 or 48 volts) compatible with the voltage of the building (110 in the US; 240 in the UK). "Most of these transformers are cheap and cheerful and usually quite crude," says Alistair. Consequently, the transformers can create pools of strong magnetic fields, three feet below the lights or also above the lights. This is worrying in a kitchen, where the maximum intensity of the field is close to where a tall adult would be standing, but even more so in the room above, which is often a bedroom where people could be sleeping inches away from the embedded ceiling lights of the floor below.

In one instance, Alistair was called to test the electromagnetic fields of a woman who had halogen ceiling lighting in the kitchen of her farmhouse. Alistair discovered horrendous levels of EMFs in her daughter's bedroom, directly above.

One way to reduce the EMFs generated by recessed halogen lighting is to have an electrician run all your halogen lights off one good quality transformer, placed, say, in a cupboard.

A final problem is caused by staring at these high intensity bulbs for too long. The National Radiological Protection Board has produced a leaflet which says that prolonged staring at halogen bulbs can cause a condition in the eye not unlike macular degeneration, which affects central vision. This happened to Alistair Philips when he was filmed by a television production company for 15 minutes and asked to look into a camera with a halogen light whose diffuser was broken. Twelve hours later a black patch appeared in the middle of one of his eyes, which was eventually diagnosed as a central serous retinopathy a blister in the back of his retina. It took a full year before the condition cleared.

If you wish to have recessed lights, you can opt for the good old fashioned incandescent variety, which are still better for you than fluorescent or halogen bulbs. For more information, contact Powerwatch, tel: 0897 100800.