Green shock: CFLs more dangerous than first thought

The compact fluorescent lightbulb has plenty of supporters in the environmental movement, even while concerns have grown about their disposal. CFLs contain mercury, and when the glass breaks, it spreads the toxic dust in the area. Boosters had previously dismissed concerns over the issue, but now researches worry about the collective effect their massive disposal will have on landfills once they start failing in large numbers:

Compact fluorescent light bulbs, long touted by environmentalists as a more efficient and longer-lasting alternative to the incandescent bulbs that have lighted homes for more than a century, are running into resistance from waste industry officials and some environmental scientists, who warn that the bulbs’ poisonous innards pose a bigger threat to health and the environment than previously thought. …

As long as the mercury is contained in the bulb, CFLs are perfectly safe. But eventually, any bulbs — even CFLs — break or burn out, and most consumers simply throw them out in the trash, said Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and editor of the journal Environmental Research.

“This is an enormous amount of mercury that’s going to enter the waste stream at present with no preparation for it,” she said.

Even a single CFL could provide toxic levels of exposure for mercury. One contains five milligrams of mercury, which would be enough to contaminate 6,000 gallons of drinking water. Low-mercury models have about one-sixth of the amount, but that’s still enough to contaminate 1,000 gallons. It makes the CFL one of the most toxic components of a household, one that causes kidney and brain damage when people get exposed to enough of it.

What happens when an incandescent bulb hits the floor? Simple: sweep it up, and try not to step on a shard of glass with bare feet. Here’s how people need to handle a broken CFL:

1. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
2. Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.
3. Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
4. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
5. Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the glass jar or plastic bag.
6. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.
7. Immediately place all cleanup materials outside the building in a trash container or outdoor protected area for the next normal trash.
8. Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing cleanup materials.
9. Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states prohibit such trash disposal and require that broken and unbroken lamps be taken to a recycling center.
10. For at least the next few times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window prior to vacuuming.
11. Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.

Er, that’s quite a commitment for a lightbulb. I have several of these around the house, and I had no idea that a break could require such an intense cleanup. Like others who bought these products, I hoped to save a little energy and drive down replacement costs.

And guess what — I can’t even throw these in the garbage, broken or unbroken. As MS-NBC reports, Minnesota requires that I take any CFLs to a disposal center certified to handle them. I didn’t know that until tonight, and I have no idea where such a center might be. It does make sense, though, considering the disposal issues involving mercury.

In other words, we have opted for a product that has much more impact on our environment and could turn households into toxic-waste sites to replace a product that uses a little more energy, a change driven ironically by environmentalists. What’s next — lead containers to replace Tupperware?