Message claiming to be a warning from the British Ministry of Health outlines mercury contamination dangers associated with the cleanup and disposal of broken compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL’s).
Compact fluorescent lightbulbs do contain mercury and caution is required when dealing with a broken bulb. However, this warning is overblown and tends to exaggerate the potential risk posed by broken CFL’s. Moreover, the message is not an official warning from the ‘British Ministry of Health’, which no longer exists.
Subject: Fw: Warning!…from the British Ministry of Health
PLEASE DO FORWARD IT TO YOUR FRIENDS BEFORE U DELETE THIS
….Regarding Energy Saving bulbs
Warning from the British Ministry of health about Energy Saving bulbs
These type of bulbs which are called Energy Saving or low Energy bulbs, if it is broken it causes serious danger! As much that everybody will have to leave the room for at least 15 minutes.
Because it contains Mercury (poisonous) which cause migraine, disorientation, imbalances and different other health problems when inhaled. And many people with allergies, causes them severe skin condition and other diseases just by touching this substance or inhaling it.
Also the ministry warned by NOT cleaning the debris of the broken bulb with the vacuum cleaner,
because it would spread the contamination to other rooms in the house while using the vacuum cleaner again.
It must be cleaned through normal broom or brush and be kept in a sealed bag and thrown right away from the house in the bin for hazardous materials.
Notice: Mercury is dangerous, more poisonous than lead or arsenic!!!!
This message, which claims to be a warning from the British Ministry of Health, outlines dangers associated with the clean up and disposal of energy saving bulbs, otherwise known as compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL’s). The message warns that, because CFL’s contain mercury, a broken bulb can pose serious health risks to humans. The warning states that broken bulbs must be cleaned up and disposed of carefully and a vacuum cleaner should not be used during the clean up.
The basic premise outlined in the warning is valid. CFL’s do indeed contain mercury and caution is certainly required when cleaning up and disposing of a broken bulb. Thus, the message does have some merit as a warning to CFL users. That said, however, as explained below, the warning tends to overstate the mercury exposure risk associated with broken CFL’s. And, the cleanup procedure outlined in the message is poorly stated and does not include all the steps recommended by health authorities.
Moreover, the warning is not from the British Ministry of Health as claimed, at least not in its current form. In fact, the “British Ministry of Health” no longer exists. The Ministry of Health was dissolved back in 1968 and its functions transferred to the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS). The DHSS was later split into two departments, the Department of Social Security (DSS) and the Department of Health (DH). The Department of Health is currently the UK government department responsible for public health issues. Furthermore, the possible dangers associated with CFL’s are more likely to be handled by UK entities other than the Department of Health, most notably the Health Protection Agency (HPA) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). In fact the “warning” poster included in the message contains material attributed to Defra.
The warning suggests that, because they contain mercury, broken CFL’s can pose a “serious danger” to human health. Mercury certainly is a highly toxic substance. Exposure to mercury can cause a range of series health issues. However, typical CFL’s contain only around 4 milligrams of mercury – about enough to cover the tip of a ball point pen. A factsheet on mercury and compact fluorescent lamps published on the Health Protection Agency website notes:
Does this mercury pose a risk?
The mercury cannot escape from an intact lamp and, even if the lamp should be broken, the very small amount of mercury contained in a single, modern CFL is most unlikely to cause any harm.
And a 14 September 2009 HPA press release states:
Mercury vapours from a broken energy saving lightbulb do not pose a significant threat to public health, according to air pollution experts.
Scientists at the Health Protection Agency have reviewed the potential health effects of mercury exposure from broken compact fluorescent lightbulbs.
They found the exposure is likely to be very small – and much lower than from other broken mercury containing products such as some types of thermometer and barometers.
Professor Virginia Murray, Consultant Medical Toxicologist, said: “Compact fluorescent lightbulbs contain a tiny amount of mercury – roughly enough to cover the tip of a ball point pen. A small proportion of this could be released into a room if the bulb is broken, but this does not pose a health risk to anyone immediately exposed.
“As a precautionary measure, the HPA advise that the room should be ventilated and the bulb cleaned up and disposed of properly.”
An article about energy saving light bulbs published on the Defra website concurs, noting:
Although the accidental breakage of a lamp is most unlikely to cause any health problems, it’s good practice to minimise any unnecessary exposure to mercury, as well as risk of cuts from glass fragments.
A January 2008 BBC News article also discusses the issue, noting:
Toxicologist Dr David Ray, from the University of Nottingham, said about 6-8mg of mercury (now limited to below 5mg) was present in a typical low-energy bulb, which he described as a “pretty small amount”.
“Mercury accumulates in the body – especially the brain,” he said. “The biggest danger is repeated exposure – a one off exposure is not as potentially dangerous compared to working in a light bulb factory. “If you smash one bulb then that is not too much of a hazard. However, if you broke five bulbs in a small unventilated room then you might be in short term danger.”
Thus, even if a person was directly exposed to the mercury in a broken CFL, the consequences are unlikely to be as dire as suggested in the above warning message. However, as a precautionary measure, users should deal with broken CFL’s in accordance with the HPA guidelines listed below:
How should I deal with a broken CFL?
In the event of an accidental breakage of a CFL, normal good housekeeping is required.
- Take care to prevent injury from broken glass.
- Vacate the room and keep children and pets out of the affected area. Shut off central air conditioning system, if you have one.
- Ventilate the room by opening the windows for at least 15 minutes before clean up.
- Do not use a vacuum cleaner, but clean up using rubber gloves and aim to avoid creating and inhaling airborne dust as much as possible.
- On hard surfaces sweep up all particles and glass fragments with stiff cardboard and place everything, including the cardboard, in a plastic bag. Wipe the area with a damp cloth and then add that to the bag. Household cleaning products should be avoided during clean up despite the very small amount of mercury involved. See the next section for cleaning carpeted surfaces.
- Use sticky tape to pick up small residual CFL pieces or powder from soft furnishings and then add that to the bag.
- The plastic bag should be reasonably sturdy and needs to be sealed, but it does not need to be air tight. The sealed plastic bag should be double-bagged to minimise cuts from broken glass.
How should I clean up if I have broken a CFL on carpet?
As mentioned earlier, the amount of mercury contained in a typical CFL is very small, up to 5 mg and is unlikely to cause any harm to human health. The level of risks involved in the case of a broken CFL on carpet is no greater than that on hard surfaces, although it may take a longer while to clean up the affected area due to the nature of the carpet surface.
The above clean up procedure should apply, but minus wiping up with a damp cloth and more attention should be paid to residual CFL pieces or powder removal using sticky tapes.
Once securely bagged, CFL waste should be disposed of via your local council’s hazardous household waste facilities.
Another emailed warning about CFL’s that began circulating in 2007 falsely claimed that a professional – and very expensive – environmental cleanup crew is required to attend when a CFL is broken.
With many jurisdictions around the world in the process of phasing out old style light bulbs in favour of CFL’s it is important that consumers are made aware of how to safely deal with broken or worn out CFL’s. However, it is also important that consumers receive clear and accurate information on the topic. The rather breathless email “warning” on the subject included above could hardly be said to present clear and accurate information. Rather than forward such a dubious warning, recipients may be wiser to inform friends about this issue directly and point them to a credible and up-to-date resource such as the Health Protection Agency.