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CFLs = Toxic And Unsafe

Mercury hazard in your home.  Environmentally friendly CFLs are anything but!

Broken CFLAs everyone jumps on the “environmentally friendly” Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bandwagon, I wonder if the hazards of mercury contamination have been fully considered, and measures taken to minimize contamination and toxicity to our Earth and our bodies.  Mercury is a fascinating, but very toxic metal.  Exposure to various forms of mercury have been implicated in illnesses ranging from psychosis, autism, and nervous system damage, to the (near sudden) death of a college chemistry professor after a couple of drops dimethylmercury penetrated her gloved hand while working in her lab.

If you’ve been (even remotely) following the controversy surrounding the implementation of CFLs, you’re probably familiar with the Prospect, Maine case of 2007.  A woman went out and purchased the new CFL bulbs and began installing them in her home.  She dropped one and it broke in her daughter’s bedroom.  Unsure of how to clean up the mess, she made a series of phone calls.  First to the place of purchase which was Home Depot, I believe.  Then, at their recommendation, she called the poison control center.  Unsure of what to do, they instructed her to call Maine EPA.  After the EPA came out and tested her home, it was determined that the mercury levels were above what is considered safe in the daughter’s bedroom.  More than a month later, her daughter’s bedroom remained a “toxic site” requiring a hazmat team of sorts to clean up the mercury with a $2000 price tag - NOT covered by homeowner’s insurance.

Other stories include dropped/broken light bulbs near central heating/air-conditioning intake vents sending toxic vaporized ‘mercuric gas’ throughout the house exposing entire households to dangerous mercury.  Or mercury residue found in higher concentrations in areas where the bulbs have been broken, including children's rooms and family gathering spots.   Even if “they” argue that the amount of mercury in a single bulb is small, and the elemental form of mercury is relatively “safe” when exposed to intact skin, there is no debate regarding the toxicity of vaporized mercury (elemental or otherwise) inhaled into the lung tissue.  And I wonder what the mercury levels would rise to if every home had *only* these types of lights, and a tornado or other natural disaster destroyed a neighborhood.  As rescuers dig through rubble, or as people attempt to rebuild their lives, their environment would be mercury contaminated, adding to their troubles.

Did you know that CFLs cannot be used in track lighting, recessed fixtures, or dimmer lighting because they have a tendency to overheat, spewing toxic fumes throughout the house?  Most people don’t.  And this limitation in useage is not clear on the packaging (nor is it highly publicized by “them”).  Likewise, the disposal/clean-up procedure is not widely known or publicized, because if the masses were actually aware or the caveats associated with CFLs,  huge problems would surface and the average person would balk at the requirement to abandon their incandescent tried and true.

Disposal.  How are you supposed to get rid of these CFLs after the burn out or break?

It has been suggested that families should “recycle” the bulbs.  They should take them back to their place of purchase (or wherever they can find a CFL recycle place) when they die or break.  That would place the family at additional risk of mercury exposure as the bulbs are more likely to break as they are handled and transported.  So are we supposed to take the bulbs one by one back to the store/recycler (if you can even find such a place locally…or perhaps you’ll have to drive quite a distance to find such a recycling center – negating the alleged benefit to the environment as you increase your carbon footprint transporting lightbulbs to recycling centers).  Or perhaps it is expected that people collect the CFLs in their homes to transport in bulk – which sounds like the bad idea that it is.

Honestly, very few people bother with recycling anything.  Getting them to recycle (with no compensation) light bulbs that they are unaware require recycling is an impossible task.  Throwing the light bulbs into the household garbage exposes garbage workers to dangerous mercury.  Since it stays on their clothing, everyone they come into contact with is potentially exposed – their children, pregnant wives, pets.  The mercury in our landfills will leach into our water table, and contaminate our environment - our own backyards, our water, and our homes.

What does the EPA say about this?  After all, this is not a new issue, and there must be some reasonable advice, simple suggestions, and basic safety measures outlined that are practical, easy to follow, and proven effective if this is going to be a national requirement with no real alternatives for lighting, right?

The following is what the US Environmental Protection Agency website has to say about handing disposal and clean-up of these CFLs.  (http://www.epa.gov/cfl/cflcleanup-detailed.html) reads as follows (emphasis and commentary, mine):

Fluorescent light bulbs contain a small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. When a fluorescent bulb breaks in your home, some of this mercury is released as mercury vapor. The broken bulb can continue to release mercury vapor until it is cleaned up and removed from the residence. To minimize exposure to mercury vapor, EPA recommends that residents follow the cleanup and disposal steps described below.

Before Cleanup

  • Have people and pets leave the room, and avoid the breakage area on the way out – Except you!  YOU have to stay and expose yourself, and possibly your fetus, to mercury poisoning.
  • Open a window or door to the outdoors and leave the room for 5-10 minutes without regard for outside conditions at the time.
  • Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning (H&AC) system, if you have one. So in the middle of summer (or winter) you have to shut down your central air/heat.
  • Collect materials you will need to clean up the broken bulb (if you don’t have these things just laying around the house, a trip to the store is in order just to be sure you have these items handy.  Never know when little Johnny is going to throw a ball in the house and break a light bulb):
    • Stiff paper or cardboard
    • Sticky tape (e.g., duct tape)
    • Damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes (for hard surfaces)
    • Glass jar with a metal lid (such as a canning jar) (a canning jar?!) or a sealable plastic bag(s)

Cleanup Steps for Hard Surfaces (and Carpeting/Rugs added here as well as they are very similar)

  • Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place debris and paper/cardboard in a glass jar with a metal lid. If a glass jar is not available, use a sealable plastic bag. (NOTE: Since a plastic bag will not prevent the mercury vapor from escaping, remove the plastic bag(s) from the home after cleanup.) So mercury vapor is not stopped by sealed plastic bags?!

  • Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder. Place the used tape in the glass jar or plastic bag.

  • Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.

  • Vacuuming of hard surfaces during cleanup is not recommended unless broken glass remains after all other cleanup steps have been taken. NOTE: It is possible that vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor…If vacuuming is needed to ensure removal of all broken glass, keep the following tips in mind:
    • Keep a window or door to the outdoors open (even if it’s snowing outside);
    • Vacuum the area where the bulb was broken using the vacuum hose, if available; and
    • Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister) and seal the bag/vacuum debris, and any materials used to clean the vacuum, in a plastic bag.
  • Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials, including vacuum cleaner bags, outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of properly.
    • Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your area. Some states and communities require fluorescent bulbs (broken or unbroken) be taken to a local recycling center. I’ll bet we all know how to obtain this information.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing bulb debris and cleanup materials.

  • Continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the H&AC system shut off, as practical, for several hours.  As practical.  How long is "as practical?."

Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rugs: Air Out the Room During and After Vacuuming

  • The next several times you vacuum the rug or carpet, shut off the H&AC system if you have one, close the doors to other rooms, and open a window or door to the outside before vacuuming. Change the vacuum bag after each use in this area. The NEXT SEVERAL TIMES?!

  • After vacuuming is completed, keep the H&AC system shut off and the window or door to the outside open, as practical, for several hours. Just so I'm sure I understand:  each time I want to vacuum, I have to turn off my central air/heat, open a window, air out the room…change/empty the vacuum bag, and this is supposed to make me safe?  Safer than just keeping the toxic item out of my home.  What if I’m NOT home when the bulb is broken; when the lamp is knocked over, or when the “cleaning” is taking place?

Actions You Can Take to Prevent Broken Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

  • Always switch off and allow a working CFL bulb to cool before handling.

  • Always handle CFL bulbs carefully to avoid breakage.
    • If possible, screw/unscrew the CFL by holding the plastic or ceramic base, not the glass tubing.
    • Gently screw in the CFL until snug. Do not over-tighten.
    • Never forcefully twist the glass tubing.

  • Do not install CFLs in table lamps and floor lamps that can be easily knocked over, in unprotected light fixtures, or in lamps that are incompatible with the spiral or folded shape of many CFLs. So if they ban all other types of bulbs, what are we to use?

  • Do not use CFL bulbs in locations where they can easily be broken, such as play spaces. I guess I’ll just leave these spaces dark, or use candles (sarcasm).

  • Use CFL bulbs that have a glass or plastic cover over the spiral or folded glass tube, if available. These types of bulbs look more like incandescent bulbs and may be more durable if dropped.

  • Consider using a drop cloth (e.g., plastic sheet or beach towel) when changing a fluorescent light bulb in case a breakage should occur. The drop cloth will help prevent mercury contamination of nearby surfaces and can be bundled with the bulb debris for disposal.

Seriously?!  If this is what’s required to clean up a broken light bulb (and it's not even clear if these measures are sufficient)…I say this is evidence that more investigation is warranted before we ban incandescent bulbs which have none of these risks!  I would like to make an educated decision about light bulbs, for myself and my family, in this land that advertises "freedom."