Clarity for Safety’s Sake
I missed last night’s Tiverton Town Council meeting because, on top of dealing with some essential technology problems with my arsenal, we had a bit of toxic contamination in the home. Well, that’s probably exaggerating: we broke one of those energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs and, realizing that they contain mercury, the obsessive in me had to research the danger.
One hopes that even a hypochondriac would find significance in the fact that just about every panic-laced missive on the topic refers to the exact same story, about a Maine mother who shattered a bulb in her daughter’s room and wound up two grand in the hole because the uncleaned spot on the shag carpet registered a too-high mercury level. But even a merely cautious parent might find cause for confused concern in the fact that the EPA’s clean-up guidelines for mercury spills state both:
Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury
If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag or vacuum debris in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.
The bottom line is that the bulbs contain very little mercury (less than 5mg in gaseous form), and the average break-and-clean will diminish the risk with each step, even if done all wrong:
- Some particles stay in the bulb.
- Some particles drift off into the air.
- Some particles stick to the shards.
- Some particles get caught in the vacuum bag.
- Some particles get caught by the body’s natural defenses.
- And some particles get absorbed with no deleterious effect.
Still, as I do with every quotidian danger, I wish some group or agency were given exemption from lawsuits in order to offer candid statements of risk and effect for the growing number of substances that we know to be harmful. So what if the safety threshold for mercury is 300 nanograms per cubic meter. What happens to the human body if that doubles, triples, quadruples? What would be the likely intake breaking the bulb right under one’s nose? A foot away? Ten feet away?
The variables are manifold, of course, but for citizen laypeople, it’d be enough to know whether we’re lighting campfires in the jungle or shooting blowtorches in the hay barn. And then I can get to wondering if my blue-state conservatism is somehow related to a periodic childhood practice of smashing fluorescent bulbs in the dumpster garages of my apartment complex, right after picking at the asbestos pipe insulation in the laundry room…