With everyone trying to save a buck on energy and save the planet, a lot of people are turning to CFL’s, compact fluorescent light bulbs. They save a lot of energy and last a very long time.
That’s one of the topics getting a lot of attention on DeclareYourCuriosity.com. But Clifford from North Andover has a warning when he writes: “I’m curious if people realize that compact fluorescent bulbs contain mercury?”
He’s correct about that. And since mercury is a neurotoxin that can be harmful, it’s important to be careful with these bulbs. There have been a lot of stories about mercury in CFL’s, indicating that you shouldn’t throw the bulbs in the trash once they burnout, but rather, should take them to a recycler. That’s fine, but what do you do if you break one in your home? WBZ’s David Wade had a “curious” time when he tried to find out.
WBZ started by asking a lot of people passing through Downtown Crossing if they knew what to do if they broke a CFL. One woman said, “I would probably use a broom or vacuum.”
Another said, “If I broke one I would just throw it away.”
And a young man said “I would probably get a dustpan and a broom.”
Sorry folks, that’s not the way to do it. The amount of mercury in the bulbs is tiny, so while you don’t have to freak out, you do have to use some care. The biggest exposure concern is for young children and pregnant women.
WBZ wanted to find out exactly what to do. We first thought, surely we could call city and town halls and someone would be able to tell us. In most communities the Department of Public Works deals with trash and recycling, so we started there. In fact we called a half dozen cities and towns and no one had the right answer. Mostly they told us to sweep or vacuum and just toss it.
Sometimes we were sent from department to department. For example when we called the city of Boston the Public Works Department sent us to the Sanitation Division. They suggested the Mayor’s office. The Mayor’s office sent us to Public Health which told us to call Environmental Health. That department sent us back to someone in Public Health where we got voicemail, left a message, but no one called back.
We found the best and clearest information on the website of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection:
Here are the main points:
- The first thing to do is open a window to vent the room. And be sure to leave the room for at least 15 minutes.
- What you don’t do is use a vacuum or broom because you don’t want to blow the mercury around. Instead, put on rubber gloves to protect your hands from the glass and use stiff paper, like index cards, and scoop up the fragments and the powder.
- Then use duct tape to pick up the tiniest pieces.
- Do a once over with a moist paper towel.
- Put everything in a sealable container like a zip lock bag or a jar and then you can put it in the trash.
Why can you put the remains of the CFL in the trash when you’re not supposed to throw away intact bulbs? Well, that’s because the tiny amount of mercury in the broken CFL will have dissipated or be so miniscule after the cleanup, that most experts say it’s not a problem to throw it away. However, you should still recycle an unbroken CFL.
If you break a CFL on a rug or carpet you might want to take extra precautions.
For step by step instructions for cleanups on hard surfaces and carpets go to the Web site of the Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection.
The EPA also has interesting information about mercury in CFL’s and in old style thermometers.
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