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Israel has joined the international trend for saving energy, which has of late become a conspicuous indicator of activity to preserve natural resources. This is reflected in the promotion of a prohibition on importing the non-energy-saving light bulbs used in most homes. Last month, the period allotted by the National Infrastructure Ministry for the public to comment on the proposed prohibition ended. Now the ministry is slated to analyze the comments submitted and approve the regulations, which should bring on a significant change in Israelis' energy-saving habits.

The new bulbs are simple to install. They conserve energy and reduce emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases entailed in their manufacture. An energy-saving bulb consumes only one-fifth of the energy consumed by an ordinary incandescent bulb, and its life span is several times longer.

However, as in other measures for the sake of the environment, along with the supposed advantages the energy-saving bulbs also bring new risks. In tests carried out in Britain it was found that some of them emit ultra-violet radiation, which is liable to exceed the limit recommended by health organizations. It emerges that with some types of energy-saving bulbs, spending an hour or more daily at a distance of less that 30 centimeters from the light source might expose users to radiation levels equivalent to a few hours' exposure to the sun. Consequently, caution must be used and the bulbs should be placed further away from people in a home or office.

In Britain and other countries in Europe there is concern about both exposure to radiation and a phenomenon called photosensitivity. The suspicion has arisen that light emitted by the energy-saving bulbs, especially compact fluorescent bulbs, will increase this sensitivity to light in people who suffer from diseases such as lupus and epilepsy.

In comprehensive tests conducted in Europe, it has emerged that in the vast majority of cases, the fluorescent bulbs had no detrimental health effects. However, it also emerged that exposure to their light could exacerbate symptoms of certain chronic skin diseases. It was determined that sufferers of these diseases must keep a safe distance of 30 centimeters from the energy-saving bulbs.

Only in recent weeks have the National Infrastructure Ministry and the Health Ministry reached an agreement that will enable the marketing and sales of energy-saving bulbs along with explanatory information about how they should be used safely.

"Labeling for the bulbs, yet to be determined, will point out that they are safe for use at a distance of over 30 centimeters or if they are covered," says Dr. Shlomo Wald, Chief Scientist of the National Infrastructure Ministry. "We will be the first country in the world to take this step. Even in Britain they haven't decided to use this type of labeling."

Wald is aware of the tests carried out in Britain, and particularly the warning that exposure to the energy-saving bulbs is liable to increase the risk of skin cancer. Nevertheless, he believes the Health Ministry's reaction in this matter is excessive. In October 2009, an inter-ministerial committee on carcinogenic substances, which advises the Health Ministry, published a warning to the effect that it is necessary to maintain a distance from compact fluorescent bulbs because of the risk of contracting skin cancer from exposure to their light.

"In Britain they have emphasized the advantages of the bulbs and not the risks. Here, however, the warning published by the Health Ministry put particular emphasis on the risk," Wald says.

It is important to remember, he adds, that people don't spend time very close to light bulbs, and that covering the bulbs prevents radiation emission. "Anyone who has read what has been published in the media got scared first and only later began to think about what the risks really are," he protests.

The radiation affair was particularly poorly timed from the perspective of Semicom Lexis Ltd., which markets the bulbs in Israel. Just as the Health Ministry published its warning, the company began a special campaign to encourage trading in incandescent ("ordinary") light bulbs for the energy-saving bulbs. As part of the campaign, in conjunction with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality and the Council for a Beautiful Israel, the public is being asked to bring in incandescent bulbs and receive in exchange energy-saving bulbs at a reduced price.

According to Semicom Lexis CEO Moshe Gov, the Health Ministry warning did not affect the campaign's success. "The Israeli consumer voted with his feet and bought many energy-saving bulbs, even before any sort of law has been passed prohibiting the sale of bulbs that don't save energy. The explanations regarding safe use of the bulbs, which were given after the Health Ministry warning, did the job. No one presses his head or his body to a light bulb, and therefore people were not deterred and bought them."

Now manufacturers and marketers of the light bulbs are awaiting the implementation of the regulations being formulated by the National Infrastructure Ministry. The original formulation of the regulations stipulated that it would be forbidden to sell non-energy-saving bulbs four months from the day the regulations go into effect. Gov stresses there should be a longer and more gradual transition, based on the European model, and therefore the regulations should be changed. Last year the European Union approved the discontinuation of use of non-energy-saving bulbs, but determined the process would be completed in 2012.

The National Infrastructure Ministry is trying to encourage people to purchase energy-saving bulbs even before the regulations are approved. At the end of this month the ministry will issue a tender for cooperation with a marketing chain to distribute to households thousands of energy-saving bulbs. The project will be accompanied by an information campaign aimed at exposing the public to the advantages of using energy-saving bulbs.

To achieve greater savings in energy consumption, changes in consumption habits will have to be significantly broader and deeper. A variety of initiatives to encourage energy savings in Israel today are, among other things, making it possible for environmental activists to cooperate with commercial organizations.

In recent months environmental and social activists established the Israel Renewable Energy Cooperative, which about two months ago held its founding convention. One of the cooperative's first projects is the replacement of the water-heating pumps at Kibbutz Givat Brenner with more energy-frugal pumps. All the members of the cooperative will share in profits generated by initiatives of this sort.

Another initiative to save energy, of a clearly commercial nature, has been taken by ESCO Israel, an energy services company. According to ESCO managing director Dan Bar Mashiah, the company carries out energy-use surveys in public buildings, factories and sport facilities and proposes efficiency plans. After a plan is implemented, the company receives part of the sum the organization has saved from the more efficient use of energy.

"This isn't just a matter of energy-saving lighting, but also of control devices to ensure lights are turned off when no one is in a room, or systems that warn of exceptional consumption," explains Bar Mashiah. "We are able to measure the savings and prove to managers of facilities and public institutions that efficiency measures pay off economically, and are not only beneficial to the environment."