New, improved guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about how to deal with a broken compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) are intended to take some of the mystery out of the purchase and use of CFLs. But by suggesting a response that borders on Hazmat lockdown, the guidelines may potentially add to consumers' uncertainties.
While CFLs have become more popular and less expensive in recent years, they still enjoy only around a quarter of the total market share for residential light bulbs--perhaps in part because of exaggerated reports about mercury toxicity and the difficulty of cleanup and disposal, some of which have prompted debunking sites like Snopes.com to clear the air. The average bulb contains around 5 mg of mercury, about 100 times less than an old-fashioned oral thermometer.
Still, mercury in any quantity should not be taken lightly, particularly in a home where children or pets live. Mercury in fish and other foods is a serious issue, but mercury vapor is even more toxic. Ingested mercury is not well absorbed by the body, while in contrast, inhaled mercury enters the bloodstream readily.
The new guidelines
The new EPA guidelines focus on preventing mercury inhalation. The key steps to safely cleaning up a CFL include the following.
- Remove all people and pets from the room where the bulb broke
- Ventilate the room by opening a window for a few minutes
- Shut off central air conditioning or heating, for several hours if possible
- Avoid vacuuming in a mercury-contaminated area
- Pick up fragments with cardboard rather than a vacuum cleaner
- Pick up remnants with tape
- Seal all debris inside a glass jar (since plastic bags will not prevent mercury vapor from escaping)
- Store sealed glass jar outside the home
- Open windows and turn off central climate control the next few times you vacuum the room
- Check with local waste disposal authorities about how to dispose of all CFLs, whether broken or not
What are the risks?
The guidelines are intended to inform consumers of how to safely respond to a broken CFL. How much of a risk is really involved?
A working group opinion (PDF) accompanying the new release on the EPA website suggests that the miniscule amount of vaporized mercury from a single broken bulb is within the safe range for adults. Studies have measured the level of vapor shortly after a CFL breakage to be between 8 and 20 micrograms per cubic meter, and levels decline rapidly within a few minutes. To give some context, 100 micrograms per cubic meter is considered a safe level for long-term occupational exposure.
However, the scientists conclude that there is not enough data to make a similar evaluation regarding children--especially since children's behaviors are different from adults'--and a reliable risk assessment regarding children and broken CFLs is not currently available.
In the absence of evidence that short-term, low-level exposure is safe for all households, the EPA has provided guidelines that help consumers minimize that exposure until more is known.
Are guidelines like these helpful, or do they scare people so much they may not buy the bulbs? Alternately, are the guidelines so impractical that consumers may ignore them altogether?
I'm likely to send my kids out of the room in response to any broken glass, and I certainly won't invite them to play with quicksilver, the way I did in high school chemistry class. But it's January in Vermont, so opening a window and turning off the heat for several hours sounds extreme. Good thing we almost never need to replace our CFLs, so the likelihood of breakage is low.
Let us know what you think in the comments below.
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