Mercury risk from compact bulbs

February 26, 2008 2:36:03 PM PST
Compact fluorescent light bulbs can really cut your energy bills. But be careful not to break them. Compact fluorescent lamps - those spiral, energy-efficient bulbs popular as a device to combat global warming - can pose a small risk of mercury poisoning if they break. And when they burn out, they shouldn't be disposed of with ordinary trash. That's the conclusion of two reports released yesterday.

Environmental officials in Maine, and with the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project say the bulbs can pose a mercury poisoning risk if they break. However, consumers should continue to use them, because their energy-saving benefits far outweigh the risk.

Sales are skyrocketing for compact fluorescent lamps, which use about 75 percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs. More than 290 million compact fluorescents carrying the EPA's "Energy Star" label sold last year, nearly double the number in 2006. Compact fluorescents now make up 20 percent of the US light bulb market. A new law requires lights to become much more energy-efficient starting in 2012.

The bulbs, like other fluorescents, have a small amount of mercury, to produce light. There are no known substitutes for the heavy metal. However, the mercury can be vaporized into the air if the bulbs break. The envornmental researchers in Maine say most danger could be avoided if people exercised common-sense caution, such as not using compact fluorescents in table lamps that could be knocked over by children or pets and properly cleaning up broken bulbs.

However, based on the Maine study, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the states of Massachusetts and Vermont are revising their recommendations for where to use compact fluorescents in a home and how to clean up when one breaks.

Some states ban putting the bulbs into the regular trash - they have to be recycled. IKEA stores have recycling bins

The study recommended that if a compact fluorescent breaks, get children and pets out of the room. Ventilate the room. Never use a vacuum, even on a rug, to clean up a broken compact fluorescent lamps. Instead, use stiff paper such as index cards and tape to pick up pieces, and then wipe the area with a wet wipe or damp paper towel. If there are young children or pregnant woman in the house, consider cutting out the piece of carpet where the lamp broke as a precaution. Place the shards and cleanup debris in a glass jar with a screw top and remove the jar from the house.

The EPA has more guidelines for what to do if they break.... You can find a link to those on this story.