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Mercury inside CFL light bulbs ! I did not know this!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

These researchers cite data from a study that released 1 mg of mercury into a 500 meter3 room to simulate a CFL break. Without ventilation, air concentrations reached 2 micrograms per m3 — or 10 times the federally recommended safe upper exposure limit for children.

So imagine now that you’re carefully carrying a handful of bulbs to install in lamps around the home and pooch gets underfoot. As you trip, those CFLs all go crashing onto a hard floor. What now?

I’ve read a lot of websites by municipal governments and even the Environmental Protection Agency. And when asked what to do about broken CFLs, most punt and simply tell consumers that the modern ones release too little mercury to pose a risk. Interestingly, they don’t even touch the issue of breakage in bigger fluorescent lights, such as the long tubes used over work benches or those ugly circular tubes needed to light some old-fashioned kitchen-ceiling fixtures. These fluorescents contain substantially more mercury than a palm-sized CFL.

More cautious websites, like EPA’s, recommend airing a mercury-tainted room for 15 minutes after a CFL breaks. Instruct family members or pets to exit the room without passing near the broken bulb. Later, scoop up visible debris with a piece of cardboard and then swab the affected area with a wet paper towel. What should you do with the debris and wet towels? EPA tells us to seal them in a plastic bag.

Actually, ditch that suggestion.

Plastic doesn’t work, Hurt told me this afternoon. Another lab found evidence that plastic wouldn’t securely trap mercury, “and we tried to confirm those results. Sure enough,” he found, “if you put a broken bulb in a plastic bag, the mercury goes right through it. It surprised me, but it’s true.” So if you bag a broken CFL and toss it in the kitchen trash can, every time you lift its lid “you’ll get a face full [of mercury].”

Hurt prefers EPA’s alternative option: Put broken CFLs in a sealed glass jar.

Where a bulb has broken on a hard surface, like a linoleum floor, EPA instructs us not to use a broom (which will become contaminated) or vacuum (which will not only become contaminated but also forcefully spew mercury vapor into the air and, potentially, other rooms).

If bulb debris ends up on carpeting, we’re to use sticky tape (like duct tape) to pick up any tiny pieces or powderlike residue. If the area must be vacuumed, EPA says to immediately empty its now-contaminated bag and pitch that into a sealed plastic bag (oops, glass jar), and immediately walk it out to the trash. (This conveniently ducks the issue of what to do with the increasingly common bagless vacuums.)

Don’t wash mercury-contaminated clothing or fabric, EPA instructs: Just pitch them out. And never dispose of CFL wastes in an incinerator chute; burning them will only release their mercury into the air.

If your bulb dies but isn’t broken, most municipalities require keeping it out of the general trash. Instead, dispose of it as hazardous waste.
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