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broken cfl bulb

Prior to the government-mandated phaseout of traditional incandescent light bulbs — the ones Thomas Edison perfected  — in favor of more energy-efficient compact florescent lights (CFLs), no one ever regarded a broken light bulb as a possible health hazard.  But all that changed once those curly-headed CFLs with neurotoxic mercury inside began to replace incandescents in countless American homes. 

So what if a CFL bulb breaks in your house  – how much mercury does it release, and how dangerous might that be to you and your family?

Well, that depends – on a lot of things. For example:

  • What type of CFL bulb is it?
  • Did it break on a carpet or hard surface?
  • How well can you ventilate the room?
  • How fast can you thoroughly clean the area where the bulb broke?
  • Is there a pregnant woman, infant or small child in your home?

It would seem logical that before these energy-saving bulbs were presented as being better for both our wallets and the environment, such questions would have been asked – and answered. But all we were told was that the old incandescents had to go and that replacing them with CFLs was something we were obliged to do if we cared about saving the planet. And suddenly we were bringing home light bulbs with warnings that they contained mercury, requiring us to be versed in the fine points of hazardous waste disposal.

So what does the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), our bureaucratic guiding light in these matters, have to say about all of this? Well, that depends on which page at the EPA website you consult.

One section, helping us to identify and remove mercury-containing products in our homes, warns that…

“…exposed mercury can evaporate and become an invisible, odorless toxic vapor,” and “if you have elemental mercury (the kind found in CFL bulbs) in your home, you need to exercise extreme caution with it and package it to prevent any leaks or spills.”

Now when you go to the special EPA section about CFL bulbs, although the agency gives no less than 21 steps to take if one should break, it sums it all up quite neatly by saying that despite the “small amounts of mercury released” should one break, CFL technology “actually helps reduces total mercury emissions in the U.S.” due to the reduction it brings about in power plant emissions.

But exactly how long such “small amounts” might remain in the air isn’t qualified, nor are the special dangers mercury poses to infants, kids and developing fetuses discussed. And while we’re reminded that mercury is found in fish, dental amalgams and released by utility plants when burning coal, there’s no mention of how turning a child’s bedroom into a direct route of exposure compares to the risks from those sources.

Broken bulb syndrome

It took the state of Maine to finally address some of these questions.

In 2007 the state’s Department of Environmental Protection ran 45 test studies where CFLs were broken in a range of different scenarios and room sizes, with mercury concentrations monitored at both an adult and toddler breathing-zone level.

What they found was:

  • how variable the cleanup results were “depending on the type of lamp, level of ventilation and cleanup method”;
  • that mercury concentrations “often” exceeded the Maine ambient air guidelines (a method of assessing the health hazards of chemicals in the air) for “some period of time,” from the breakage of only one CFL bulb;
  • that mercury air concentrations “sometimes” exceeded the state’s ambient air guideline by a whole lot. That guideline, which is 300 nanograms per cubic meter (ng/m) – was topped by numbers such as 25,000 ng/m, 50,000 ng/m, and a whopping 100,000 ng/m, again, all from a single bulb;
  • that mercury levels can “rebound” when rooms are no longer being ventilated, and,
  • that the mercury readings at a height of one foot were typically higher than at a five-foot level.

The 206-page report also states that flooring surfaces can still retain mercury sources even when “visibly clean,” and that mercury “in in the carpeting has particular significance for children rolling around on a floor, babies crawling, or non mobile infants placed on the floor.”

The report goes so far as to suggest that you may want to consider removing carpet where a CFL has broken depending on “its location” and the “occupants of the household.”

The state’s conclusion after all that testing is: “it is unclear what the exact health risks are from exposure to low levels of elemental mercury, especially for sensitive populations…”

If this sounds like a bad joke, in a sense it is. And that’s aside from the recycling nightmare and  unknown amounts of mercury from CFL bulbs that are thrown in the trash and sent to a landfill.

So what are your lighting options? If you’re down to your last Edison incandescent and can’t find any more, new LED bulbs appear to be the best choice. They are actually more energy-efficient than CFLs, contain no mercury, and last longer. (In fact, the “Good Night Light” and “Awake & Alert Light” by Definity Digital are even “biologically corrected” to give off the right wavelength of light for night or day.)

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Linda Bonvie

Linda Bonvie is an author and consumer advocate with over 20 years of experience researching and writing about food safety, health and environmental issues. She is the editor of FoodIdentityTheft.com, for which she writes twice weekly blogs, and is co-author of Chemical-Free Kids: How to Safeguard Your Child’s Diet and Environment (2003) and Chemical-Free Kids: the Organic Sequel (2008), as well as The Stevia Story: a tale of incredible sweetness and intrigue (1997). Articles she has co-authored with her brother Bill have been published in a number of top magazines and many major newspapers. One, an expose on the spraying of passengers on international flights with a toxic pesticide, which was published back in 1993, led to the requirement being dropped by a couple dozen countries after then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pena became personally involved in the issue.