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Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb Mercury Warning

by Brett M. Christensen

News reports claim that if a Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb (CFL) is broken, it can release dangerous levels of mercury into the house and a professional environmental cleanup crew is required to handle the problem.

Brief Analysis:
CFL’s do contain mercury but an environmental cleanup crew is not required if a bulb breaks.

Subject: Mercury AlertWASHINGTON – Brandy Bridges heard the claims of government officials, environmentalists and retailers like Wal-Mart all pushing the idea of replacing incandescent light bulbs with energy-saving and money-saving compact fluorescent lamps.

So, last month, the Prospect, Maine, resident went out and bought two dozen CFLs and began installing them in her home. One broke. A month later, her daughter’s bedroom remains sealed off with plastic like the site of a hazardous materials accident, while Bridges works on a way to pay off a $2,000 estimate by a company specializing in environmentally sound cleanups of the mercury inside the bulb.

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Detailed Analysis:
According to reports published online and circulating via email, Brandy Bridges of Maine, USA was advised that she needed to hire an expensive environmental cleanup crew to remove mercury from her daughter’s room after a compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) broke during installation.

An April 12 2007 Ellsworth American article reported on the incident. According to the article, Bridges was advised to contact the Main Department of Environmental Protection, who sent out a specialist to assess the levels of mercury in the house:

The specialist arrived soon after the phone conversation and began testing the downstairs, where he found safe levels of mercury — below the state’s limit of 300 ng/m3 (nanograms per cubic meter).

In the daughter’s bedroom, the levels remained well below the 300 mark, except for near the carpet where the bulb broke. There the mercury levels spiked to 1,939 ng/m3. On a bag of toys that bulb fragments had landed on, the levels of mercury were 556 ng/m3.

Bridges was told by the specialist not to clean up the bulb and mercury powder by herself. He recommended the Clean Harbors Environmental Services branch in Hampden.

Clean Harbors quoted $2000 to do the cleanup and Bridges was forced to seal up the bedroom with plastic sheeting until she can afford to pay to have the work done.

WorldNetDaily and other news outlets soon took up the story. As shown in the above example the WorldNetDaily article began circulating via email and has also been posted to blogs and online forums.

Although there is no reason to doubt the truth of the events outlined in the reports, it seems that Bridges was apparently given quite poor advice on this issue because she could have safely cleaned up the broken bulb herself.

CFL’s do contain mercury, although the amount of mercury in an average bulb is tiny. A Mercury Fact Sheet published on Energy Star, a website run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, states:

CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing – an average of 5 milligrams, which is roughly equivalent to an amount that would cover the tip of a ball-point pen. No mercury is released when the bulbs are intact or in use. By comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury. It would take 100 CFLs to equal that amount.

Mercury currently is an essential component of CFLs and is what allows the bulb to be an efficient light source. Many manufacturers have taken significant steps to reduce mercury used in their fluorescent lighting products. In fact, the average amount of mercury in a CFL is anticipated to drop by the end of 2007, thanks to technology advances and a commitment from the members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.

Nevertheless, mercury is a dangerous substance and some caution is therefore required when cleaning up broken bulbs. However, so long as commonsense precautions are taken, there is no need to hire a professional hazardous waste cleanup crew to deal with a shattered CFL. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends the following guidelines for dealing with a broken CFL:

What to Do if a Fluorescent Light Bulb Breaks
Fluorescent light bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. EPA recommends the following clean-up and disposal guidelines:

  1. Open a window and leave the room (restrict access) for at least 15 minutes.
  2. Remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner.
    • Wear disposable rubber gloves, if available (do not use your bare hands).
    • Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard.
    • Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe.
    • Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.
  3. Place all cleanup materials in a plastic bag and seal it.
    • If your state permits you to put used or broken fluorescent light bulbs in the garbage, seal the bulb in two plastic bags and put into the outside trash (if no other disposal or recycling options are available).
    • Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.
  4. The first time you vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag once done cleaning the area (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag and/or vacuum debris, as well as the cleaning materials, in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.

Moreover, Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection has published a similar set of guidelines on its website. It is unclear why the DEP apparently advised Brandy Bridges to call in a professional cleanup crew since this seemingly contradicts its own guidelines. DEP spokesperson Scott Cowger told the Ellsworth American that there is no need to hire professionals to clean up a broken bulb. The article notes that the “specialist who responded to Bridges’ broken bulb was trained to respond to chemical spills and to clean up such spills to ‘appropriate standards'”.

Thus, Bridges may have talked to a particular staff member who was simply not conversant with the appropriate DEP guidelines or perhaps there was a misunderstanding about the severity of the contamination.

It would be unfortunate if this story dissuades people from shifting from the traditional incandescent bulbs to the much more economical and environmentally friendly CFL’s. Ironically, the use of CFL’s actually reduces overall mercury emissions. CFL’s use less coal-generated electricity than incandescent bulbs and coal-fired power plants around the world emit significant amounts of mercury.

That said, given that environmental groups and governments around the world are pushing people to switch to CFL’s, perhaps more needs to be done to make CFL users aware of safe cleanup procedures for bulb breakages.

Last updated: 10th May 2007
First published: 10th May 2007
By Brett M. Christensen
About Hoax-Slayer

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