A couple of years ago we made the switch to compact fluorescent bulbs in all of the light fixtures in our house. Our electric company had been enthusiastically promoting compact fluorescents for months in their newsletters, including offering rebate coupons for anyone purchasing a certain brand of these bulbs. The environmentally-friendly aspect of the compact fluorescent bulbs, and the promises of how much less energy this type of bulb would use, were intriguing, and we thought the bulbs were a really good idea… then.
We were a little surprised when our bulb changeover didn’t change the amount of electrical energy we were using. We even joked that our electrical usage had actually increased just after we switched the bulbs (it had), but we still liked the idea that we were doing our part to save the environment. It didn’t take long before people who knew we had this type of bulb started telling us about news reports they had seen or read about how dangerous exposure to the mercury in these bulbs would be if one of the bulbs happened to break. For several months we dismissed all of this as just another exaggerated news story… after all, the electric company had not mentioned any concerns, and there was nothing on the bulb packaging to indicate that these bulbs needed to be handled any differently than any other bulb. Also, buying these bulbs for every light fixture in our house had been an expensive investment we didn’t want to lose. Then one day my mother told me about an especially disturbing article she had read, and in an effort to find facts to contradict that article, I started reading what the Environmental Protection Agency and state government sites had to say about the advised clean-up method for these bulbs. I did not like what I found.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection offers detailed information about cleaning up a broken compact fluorescent bulb. I think anyone who has these bulbs in their house should read these instructions, which begin with a warning never to use a vacuum or broom to clean up a broken compact fluorescent bulb.
So what is the recommended clean-up process? It involves opening windows and doors and immediately getting people and pets out of the area and staying out for at least fifteen minutes. Then some brave soul is supposed to come back into the room armed with two pieces of cardboard to scoop up the broken glass and “powder,” duct tape to pick up any smaller particles, and damp paper towel to pick up even smaller particles. All of the clean-up materials are supposed to be placed in a glass jar with a tight seal for disposal, marked as hazardous waste, and gotten out of the house to avoid further contamination. The brave soul should then wash his hands and face and clothing, and throw away any clothing or materials that came in direct contact with the contents of the broken bulb… while keeping the doors and windows open for several more hours.
The guidelines suggest that if breakage occurs on carpeting, homeowners might want to cut out that section of carpet, or if the carpet is not removed, windows should be opened the next several times the carpet is vacuumed. An additional study showed that even after the broken bulb has been cleaned up according to the recommended guidelines, visibly clean carpets and floors can still retain traces of mercury, and that no one knows what health effects these low levels might have.
The guidelines end with this statement:
“The next time you replace a lamp, consider putting a drop cloth on the floor so that any accidental breakage can be easily cleaned up. If consumers remain concerned regarding safety, they may consider not utilizing fluorescent lamps in situations where they could easily be broken. Consumers may also consider avoiding CFL usage in bedrooms or carpeted areas frequented by infants, small children, or pregnant women.”
It’s a decision everyone has to make for themselves, but we DO remain concerned… and we no longer have compact fluorescent bulbs in ANY of our light fixtures. We took them back to the special recycling center for compact fluorescent bulbs at the same home supply store we bought them from, and it feels good to no longer have something in our house that might break and create a hazardous waste situation. We expected an increase in our electrical usage when we went back to incandescent bulbs, but we have been keeping a daily record of how much electricity we have used since the first of the year, and the next day after the bulb switch, our electrical usage went down… and has stayed down the same percentage ever since. Nothing else had changed.
Figure that one out…