Fluorescent Bulbs Cause Confusion

Listen to the Story

Officials say the small amount of mercury in compact fluorescent light bulbs could lead to health problems if a bulb breaks and a person is exposed.(Photo: theskywatcher (flickr))
Officials say the small amount of mercury in compact fluorescent light bulbs could lead to health problems if a bulb breaks and a person is exposed.(Photo: theskywatcher (flickr))

It turns out that people hoarding incandescent light bulbs may be wasting time and shelf space. Despite rumors to the contrary, a 2007 law does not ban the incandescent bulbs, only mandates they become more efficient. Still many are switching to small fluorescent bulbs. But there is confusion over what to do with fluorescents if they burn out or break. WOSU’s Marilyn Smith reports that the confusion stems from the small amount of mercury the bulbs contain.

You’ve seen them. Probably even use them. Compact fluorescent light bulbs. CFLs, the swirled thin tube bulb.

They save energy, but they’re more expensive than incandescent bulbs, take a while to warm up and the light is cold. And they contain a hazardous material – mercury. But how hazardous?br>

Mercury is a silvery fluid metal found naturally in the earth’s crust and used in thermometers. Pretty to look at, but according to OSU chemistry professor Prabir Dutta, mercury vapor, if inhaled, can be dangerous.

“If you breathe that vapor and it goes into your lungs then it will eventually get into the blood brain barrier and essentially effect central nervous system things like coordination, eyesight.”

Dutta said mercury has a long history of making people sick.

“‘Madder’s Hat’ came from the fact that hundreds of years ago they used to make fur hats and there was some mercury involved with it and people that worked on it became mad.”

So if mercury is in a fluorescent light bulb, what do we do when one breaks? Patrick McGrath is an environmental inspector for the Columbus Department of Health. He says don’t worry too much.

“There’s a lot of mercury that’s released when a bulb is initially broken but if you ventilate that space that mercury is gone in a short amount of time.”

But John Remy of the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio says if a bulb breaks, brace yourself.

“If one of those breaks you’re into a hazmat situation to end all hazmat situations. The fire department’s coming. The police are coming. Everybody’s coming. You don’t need that. Nobody needs that. Be careful with this stuff.”

Oooookkk. So what should we do if a bulb breaks? The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency suggests placing a drop cloth on the floor before changing a CFL to minimize clean up if a bulb breaks.

Then there are eleven steps the agency says must be followed. First open up all the windows. Then put on disposable gloves.

“You can scoop up the fragments with some stiff paper or cardboard. Wipe it clean with a damp paper towel. And then use some sticky tape like duct tape and pick up the small pieces and powder. Then place all that material in a plastic bag and seal it. And then place it in another plastic bag before you dispose of it,” says Linda Oros from the EPA.

Dispose of it? Where?

An annoying but memorable Massachusetts Public Service Announcement says don’t throw them in the trash. But the EPA says residential consumers can throw unbroken CFL’s in the trash, but it strongly suggests recycling.

SWACO’s John Remy warns for recycling purposes they must be handled differently than paper, plastic and cans.

“Do not bring your hazardous waste to our recycling drop off locations. That stuff requires special handling. And we do not want that stuff sitting out there causing problems.”

Now all this assumes consumers know Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs contain mercury. OSU Chemist Prabir Dutta says the current CFL packages should make it clear.

“There should not only be a marking on the box which is not very useful since you throw away the box after you put the lamp in, but on the lamp itself.”

If you’re still confused. There’s an alternative to CFL’s – LED lights. Marilyn Smith, WOSU News.