Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Compact Flourescent Lightbulbs Potentially Hazardous When Broken

Can going green be hazardous to your health?
Energy efficient compact flourescent lightbulbs (CFL's) have mercury in them. The Environmental Protection Agency has put out specific procedures to be used when handling bulbs that have broken:

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.

There are also concerns about them showing up in landfills... so one might be careful when disposing of them as well and here are the EPA guidelines for disposing of mercury containing lightbulbs.

NPR had a good piece about CFL's and their hazards. Aside from CFL's showing up in landfills, the article says that there are concerns that sanitation workers may be exposed to mercury if trash contains broken CFL bulbs.
the companies and federal government haven't come up with effective ways to get Americans to recycle them.

"The problem with the bulbs is that they'll break before they get to the landfill. They'll break in containers, or they'll break in a dumpster or they'll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens,"
In this recent article on MSNBC News - they state:
The amount [of mercury in a CFL bulb] is tiny — about 5 milligrams, or barely enough to cover the tip of a pen — but that is enough to contaminate up to 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe drinking levels, extrapolated from Stanford University research on mercury. Even the latest lamps promoted as “low-mercury” can contaminate more than 1,000 gallons of water beyond safe levels.
It will be interesting to see if mercury contamination of soil and water or in landfills rises in about 5-7 years when these CFL's start showing up in higher numbers in the trash and in our environment.

Sometimes technology gives us new problems as it attempts to solve current problems.
As for me, I'm sticking to incandescents and just being frugal with the light switch in general. I very rarely have to replace light bulbs in my house as it is.


AmyL said...

Are you aware that the latest energy bill signed into law will actually make incandescent bulbs illegal to sell in a few years? The politically correct phrase is they'll be "phased out". Either way, unless a new technology is developed we'll all be forced to have CFLs in our homes at some point. Now is the time to stock up on incandescents!

Anonymous said...

I'm planning on sending all my used CFL's to all the extremist environazi organizations for THEM to dispose of properly. Serves them right for helping to foist these things on us.

Johnny 5 said...

As someone who sells light bulbs for a living, I am less enthusiastic than most about compact fluorescent bulbs. This is due to the fact that the ones currently available contain significant amounts of mercury. If one of these bulbs should break inside of a person’s home, it could cause a challenging disposal situation. It is my belief that the technology should progress to a point at which the mercury levels are low or nonexistent before people changeover their entire homes. Another consideration is that as these bulbs burn out, they will most likely be thrown away as though they are normal rubbish and landfills will have incredibly high levels of mercury in their soil as a result.

Krissy said...

Most CFLs today on the market contain less than 5mgs of mercury and there are CFL options out there that contain as little as 1.5mgs of mercury- which can hardly be called a “significant amounts of mercury” considering that many item in your home contain 100s of times more of mercury including your computer. Mercury levels in CFLs can never be “nonexistent” since mercury is a necessary component of a CFL and there is no other known element that is capable of replacing it. But CFLs actually prevent more mercury from entering the environment. According to the Union of Concerned Scientist, “a coal-fired power plant will emit about four times more mercury to keep an incandescent bulb glowing, compared with a CFL of the same light output”.