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…

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Ragin' Rhode Islander
Ragin' Rhode Islander
16 years ago

CFL’s – anyone want to take bets on how long before these too will become a source for “public nuisance” litigation by Sheldon (I’ll give your firm this windfall in a no-bid contract in return for campaign support) Whitehouse; Patrick (“me too”) Lynch and the class action ambulance chasers at Motley Rice?

Justin Katz
16 years ago

Not until after Congress and/or the GA mandate by law that they are exclusively sold and used.

16 years ago

I used to work at a local hospital that shall remain nameless but has been in the news for various issues over the last 2 years or so.
They taught us to pick up spilled mercury with two index cards and a specimen jar.
The image of an OSHA inspector dropping dead at the sight of us makes me giggle sometimes.
Or maybe it’s the mercury…?

16 years ago

If you are concerned about an infrequent occurrence like this, you probably shouldn’t breathe any air that was cycled through Brayton Point…..
This is not say that we shouldn’t recycle the millions of CFLs responsibly. My few, your few, no big deal if land filled, but everyone’s can be a big deal.

16 years ago

You have my sympathy, Justin.
After everything I’ve read about these bulbs, if one of them broke in my house, I’d probably open all the windows and doors and run all my fans on high for 10-15 minutes.
Why were these bulbs made this way? Good to know there isn’t a lot of mercury in them. But apparently enough that the EPA prescribes a $2,000 cleanup. If nothing else, wouldn’t it occur to the manufacturer that they are a lawsuit waiting to happen?
EMT, tell us you at least held your breath when you employed that high tech disposal method!

16 years ago

You can’t assess risk without weighing the risk of the alternatives. If you choose to use only incandescent bulbs, for the same output they will consume far more electricity. If that electricity comes from a coal fired power plant, say Brayton Point, you have implicitly chosen to create more airborne pollution. Its been calculated that the extra coal-generated energy used by incandescent bulbs over the lifetime of a CFL that provides equivalent light will result in more mercury being put in the atmosphere than the amount in the CFL. Guaranteed. Compare that to the risk of very infrequently breaking a CFL.
BTW, turning the fans on in your house will only guarantee a wider dispersal of the contamination unless its done properly. Lastly, don’t contact the hysterics at the EPA.
Here’s a straightforward fact sheet from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency:
Note where their threshold of concern occurs.
Do you think RI has a similarly useful factsheet? Just joking, its not possible.

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