Those curly CFL light bulbs that we all will be forced to adopt are incipient environmental disasters. Should a table or floor lamp be knocked over by a dog or child, for instance, if the bulb breaks, you have a mercury contamination problem, one that requires great care in cleaning up.
Writing in the Washington Times, Terrence Jeffrey exposes some of the contradictory advice the EPA is offering:
The first section is titled: "What Never to Do With a Mercury Spill." It says: "Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury (but see the 'What to Do if a Fluorescent Light Bulb Breaks' section below for more specific instructions about vacuuming broken fluorescent light bulbs). The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure."
But the EPA also tells us:
But what if a fluorescent bulb breaks on the wall-to-wall carpet where your toddler crawls? What then? Suddenly, it is OK to use a vacuum on a mercury spill.
"Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag," says the directive. "Use sticky tape to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder. 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 a sealed plastic bag."
But don't throw that sealed bag away. It may be too toxic for your garbage can. "Some states do not allow such trash disposal," says EPA's directive. "Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken out to a local recycling center."
There's much more:
If you use fluorescent bulbs, says EPA, you will need an evacuation plan in the event of a break. "Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out," says EPA's directive. "Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more. Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system if you have one."
When you can safely return, says EPA, start throwing away your belongings. "If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or the bedding should be thrown away," says the directive.
Never clean any washable thing -- no matter how costly or sentimentally valued -- if it has been near a broken fluorescent bulb. "Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage," says the directive. Imagine: The mercury in these bulbs is so bad it is bad for your sewage.
I have personally wasted a lot of gasoline taking burned out CFLs to the City of Berkeley recycling station, where they have been cheerfully received. It appears that not that many folks (in Berkeley!) are taking the trouble to drive there, based on the warm greeting I receive for doing my civic duty. I must assume many people are just throwing away the CFLs in the garbage.
I wonder how long it will be before those souls who collect and dispose of our garbage start showing signs of mercury poisoning? Especially the people who work the rear end of the garbage truck, where they crush and compact the trash they collect. Smash enough CFL bulbs, and I bet the trucks become contaminated. Class action lawyers around the country must be licking their chops over the potential. This could be another asbestos bonanza.
By the way, it is claimed that these bulbs have a much longer life span than incandescent bulbs. Maybe in a laboratory somewhere, with bulbs that haven't been shipped in from China and stocked on store shelves. But an alarming percentage of the CFLs I have purchased have not worked properly. So I imagine there are quite a few of them finding their way to garbage cans everywhere.
Hat tip: Ed Lasky