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When A 'Curly' Lightbulb Breaks

Add to the list of things no parent especially wants to hear:

"Mom, my reading lamp fell over, and the light bulb broke. It was one of those curly ones."

That's what my 12-year-old son told me the other day as I sat working at my desk.

Cleaning up a broken light bulb isn't fun; those little shards of glass scatter everywhere. But when the bulb is "one of those curly ones," suddenly I realized I was dealing with a potentially toxic situation.

The curly bulb is of course a compact fluorescent light bulb, coil-shaped and valued by those of us who would save money and the environment because it runs on less electricity than a standard incandescent bulb. The complication: These bulbs contain a little bit of mercury, and when they break, that mercury vapor is released.

In this case, into my son's bedroom.

After commending the boy for getting out of the room and coming to me right away, I did what we all do these days: I Googled for information about how to clean up safely. Several sites, including that of the federal Environmental Protection Agency dispensed the same advice:

  • Open the window and keep everyone (including pets) out of the room for 15 minutes.
  • Don't vacuum or sweep.
  • Use pieces of stiff cardboard to pick up as much as you can; deposit the stuff into a lidded glass jar (such as a Mason jar) or a sealable plastic bag.
  • Use duct tape to pick up the smaller bits. Then use a disposable wet wipe to swab the area down. Deposit all cleaning materials in the jar or bag.
  • If the bulb's landed on a carpet or rug: don't vacuum until you've thoroughly removed all the light-bulb debris, again using duct tape to pick up small pieces. Remove the bag and dispose of it immediately.
  • Take the jar or bag full of broken bulb and cleaning materials to the outside trash; some areas have special requirements for disposing of such hazardous materials. Find those here.

I did my best. The base of the bulb remained screwed into the lamp -- which wouldn't fit in any jar -- so I just threw the whole thing into a trash bag and double bagged it.

After the initial drama, I had time to wonder how much mercury my son had actually been exposed to and what harm it may have done. So I called a couple of pediatrician/researchers who know a lot about environmental risks to kids: Hal Strelnick, a professor of family and social medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and an attending physician at Montefiore Medical Center the Bronx and Dana Best of the Children's National Medical Center in D.C.

Both put my mind at ease. While prolonged exposure to mercury is known to cause neurological and kidney damage, the amount released from that single bulb in this isolated instance poses a relatively small risk, especially to a child as old as my son, they said. The greatest risk would be to a baby or toddler, the doctors explained, whose neurological systems and organs are rapidly developing; developing fetuses are also at higher risk of damage from mercury exposure.

Because mercury vapor is heavier than air, Stelnick explains, it sinks toward the floor, so a crawling baby in my son's room would have been more likely harmed than would my big galoot of a boy.

"There's no good mercury in the body," Stelnick says. While the risk to my son from this one exposure was probably quite low, the truth is that while "a very small amount of mercury is released when we break a fluorescent bulb, we don't know what that can do," as Best says. "It's almost impossible to measure that amount in the body. So we really don't have good evidence for low levels of mercury."

Best adds that she, like many adults of a certain age, remembers being exposed to mercury as a child. (I myself remember playing with liquid mercury, watching it roll around in the palm of my hand.) "We seem to be functioning fine," she notes.

In the grand scheme of things, Best adds, my son (or any child) "is much more likely to get hurt in a car accident, get in a school fight, or be sickened by secondhand smoke than to get harmed by that amount of mercury" released from the bulb.

"When we rank these kinds of harm," Best says, "it can become clear very quickly that there are other things we'd have you worry about."

Such as the broken glass.

Still, every new technology seems to introduce new hazards. Do you worry about mercury exposure? And did you once play with mercury, too?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  November 3, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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Uh, was it really necessary to throw the whole lamp away?

Posted by: mustid | November 3, 2008 8:09 AM | Report abuse

If these bulbs are really hazardous waste when used up, someone needs to take responsibility for them. If the level is insignificant, then we should get the go-ahead to pitch them in the trash. The Bush-era EPA has really punted on this one.

Posted by: curtis789 | November 3, 2008 8:20 AM | Report abuse

Last year, my 13-year-old brother broke a mercury thermometer by holding it to a lightbulb. Before he (finally) admitted that it hadn't been in his mouth, my mother had called poison control - who in turn called the fire department, who called the EPA. Because of one broken mercury thermometer, my parents had most of the bureaucracy of the state of Ohio traipsing through their house. They had to rip out all of the carpeting in their entire upstairs in case it had somehow been contaminated; they had to throw away all of my brother's bedding and clothing; and they had to scrub the walls and floor of his room with a special solution. They also had to have the house inspected (twice!) by the EPA to ensure that the mercury content was not at a dangerous level. Their house was built in the 1960's; I have to assume that someone once played with mercury somewhere in the vicinity without this level of fuss. It seems to me that the reaction might have been a little extreme...

Posted by: ohio11 | November 3, 2008 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Ethanol wrecks the food supply, CFL bulbs release mercury vapor, clean air gas additives pollute the water supply...

What we need is a lengthy examination of the hazards of going "green."

Posted by: ronpaul2008com | November 3, 2008 8:30 AM | Report abuse

Mustid - thanks, I didn't catch that bit about throwing away the whole lamp.

Doesn't that more than cancel out any benefit to the enviroment that using the eco-friendly light bulbs?

If the curly bulbs are potentially dangerous for my baby I'm not getting anymore.

Posted by: a1icia | November 3, 2008 8:30 AM | Report abuse

> Do you worry about mercury exposure?

Not much.

> And did you once play with mercury, too?

Of course. So did my somewhat nerdish friends. This was back in the 1950s. We're still around.

Note that mercury-containing fluorescent lights in the form of those tubes found in office buildings and many home kitchens have been around for decades in great numbers. The wikipedia article on them says,

"Fluorescent lighting systems spread rapidly during World War II as wartime manufacturing intensified lighting demand. By 1951 more light was produced in the United States by fluorescent lamps than by incandescent lamps."

Posted by: TexLex | November 3, 2008 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Considering that the amount of mercury in the CFLs is less than the amount of mercury in the old thermometers, I'm not entirely sure why anyone would freak about this.

Really, people need to understand risk a heck of a lot better. They won't buy CFLs but they will do lots of other much riskier things like drive a car. Come on, now, people!

Posted by: rlalumiere | November 3, 2008 8:49 AM | Report abuse

We worry entirely too much about the wrong risks. In particular we seem to have a national phobia about chemical risks. Also for events which have a large consequence but a small probability.

There are wpeciallly god examplws of how we do completely irrational things with regard to money management, when analyzed from a risk standpoint.

Risk is a good way to study statistics, which gets far too little coverage in our schools.


Posted by: hydra | November 3, 2008 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Look at the warnings on any over the counter medication - most people still take it right? We live in a time where you have to be warned about any possible adverse effect that could happen to you from using a product, no matter how small the risk.

For the sake of argument - if you're going to be so worried about mercury in a lightbulb, then why aren't you equally as worried about the other myriad chemicals you unwittingly expose yourself on a daily basis (i.e. flame retardants in your carpet, clothes, furniture, etc...formaldehyde that is released from pressed wood furniture, phthalates that are released from many air-fresheners, BPA that is leached from plastic food/drink containers.)? You'd get a bigger bang for your buck reducing your exposure to those kinds of toxins you come in contact with for long periods every day than the few minutes you're exposed to a minute level of mercury while you clean up the handful of lightbulbs you'll break in your lifetime.

Posted by: MacGruber | November 3, 2008 9:05 AM | Report abuse

I'll have to agree with 8:49. You people are absolutely paranoid. I'm sure you've smoked or snorted more dangerous things in your lifetime. My biggest annoyance with those curly light bulbs is it takes a couple seconds for them to light after you flip the switch. BTW, what do you do with all your run-down batteries you use up in toys, flashlights, portable radios, whatever? Those batteries contain mercury, too.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | November 3, 2008 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Although the risk to individuals from a CFL breaking is minimal, I have always worried about the risk to our environment from disposal of CFLs in aggregate. I don't trust the majority of people to treat worn out or broken CFLs as hazardous waste. That's one of the reasons I'm waiting for wide-dispersion LEDs or improved incandescents to become viable before I move away from regular incandescents for the majority of my lighting.

Posted by: jake3_14 | November 3, 2008 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Jake, as Baltimore11 mentioned, if you don't use them because you're worried of the aggregate effect of how other people dispose of them, then how do you justify using batteries? Even rechargeable ones contain toxic metals and I think it's pretty safe to assume the majority of people don't take take the time to dispose of batteries properly either. If pollution prevention is your motivation, then you'd have a bigger impact by not using batteries, cell phones, and computers, all of which contain toxic metals, than by protesting lightbulbs.

Posted by: MacGruber | November 3, 2008 9:53 AM | Report abuse

A bit of Googling comes up with this relevant US Government study from 2006 looking at the usage of mercury-containing lamps in the US in 2001. The message I get is that CFLs aren't going to add much risk that we haven't already been facing for a long time(whether we knew it or not).

Mercury Flow Through the Mercury-Containing Lamp Sector of the Economy of the United States

"Of the nearly 4.2 billion mercury-containing lamps in service [in 2001], more than 4 billion were fluorescent lamps that contained 43.2 metric tons (t) of mercury; they were distributed as follows: 57 per- cent in commercial buildings, 32 percent in residences, 11 percent in industrial facilities, and a negligible percentage in outdoor service."

Posted by: TexLex | November 3, 2008 10:40 AM | Report abuse

This big scare about mercury is a bunch of hokum. If mercury was that bad I would be dead of mentally impaired instead of being alive and healthy at 66 and having a 130 IQ. When I was a kid growing up I always had Mercurochrome or Merthiolate painted somewhere on my body. It didn't hurt anyone that I know or me. I don't think that the government wants the public to have access to mercury or it's compounds because they can be made into some pretty mean explosives.

Posted by: OldCoot1 | November 3, 2008 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Two random thoughts:

Random thought 1: Lady I work with is a big-time liberal Obama-lover. Terribly concerned about all these environmental issues. I'm sure she discusses them at great length while she's standing outside the building taking a cigarette break.

Random thought 2: I had a tooth pulled last week. Before the dentist would yank it, I had to sign a medical release saying I was aware all manner of dreadful things could happen - infection, bleeding, gum injury, pain, and at least a half-dozen other things I've since forgotten. But I noticed that "death" was not on the list.

I believe that was the first medical release I'd ever signed that didn't warn me that the routine procedure I was about to undergo could kill me.

Posted by: gilbertbp | November 3, 2008 11:35 AM | Report abuse

When I was in elementary school I got hold of some mercury by buying it from another student whose older sibling had probably stolen it from a high school chemistry lab. I was fascinated by it and had no idea the stuff was dangerous. I remember playing with it on the playground, holding it in my hands, then watching as it flowed through my fingers and into the sand, disappearing forever (into the water table). Later, in high school myself, and working as a lab assistant, we would joke about how the stuff went everywhere when you spilled it, making little tiny balls that were impossible to recover. Our concern was mainly about expense.
Given this (I am healthy, have a Ph.D., no nerve damage, etc.) please put your mind at rest about the small amount your son was exposed to. Next time, I wouldn't throw away the lamp.
Just be glad that high school chemistry teachers are taking this thing more seriously now and a lot of the labs have been cleaned up.

Posted by: jonawebb | November 3, 2008 11:44 AM | Report abuse

So what is that supposed to imply gilbertbp? That people that are concerned with environmental issues are likely smokers and therefore are not to be taken seriously? That liberals are like people that take smoke breaks and shouldn't be taken seriously? That you're not a card-carrying republican if you care about environmental issues? All hogwash, and if you believe any of that then you're a fool.

Posted by: MacGruber | November 3, 2008 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I believe that the mercury in the CFLs is actually in the plastic base of the lamp as part of the ballast system. Just breaking the glass is unlikely to release significant mercury.

The primary issue with mercury in the lamps is actually at the disposal site when it comes in as part of the waste stream. It can cause a receiving landfill or incinerator to have problems with their air, water, or solid waste systems. That is why they want to keep them out of the household waste stream and in a hazardous waste or recycling stream instead. In our area, household waste is incinerated. The mercury captured by the scrubbers from vapor or is in the solid residual can cause those materials to be declared a hazardous waste instead of a solid waste which can push the treatment/disposal cost of those residues up by an order of magnitude. That cost then gets charged back to you as higher waste disposal fees or property taxes.

Most localities have places that will take CFLs that are defunct. In our area, Ace Hardware stores will take them as well as the County Resource Recovery Agency. Key components, such as mercury, then get recycled.

Posted by: raydh | November 3, 2008 12:21 PM | Report abuse

There is a big difference between the type of powder mercury in CFLs and the liquid mercury many of you "played" with when you were kids.
You could actually (if you were stupid enough) injest that and have it pass through your system with ease.
I have in my posession 10 pages of items that contain mercury that all of us come into contact with every day. It is available on the IMERC and the EPA site.
We are up to our armpits in Mercury.
It is a neurotoxin.
The EPA site recommends that mercury products should be avoided if other products are available.
If there is breakage of a CFL bulb and the mercury powder lands on "soft surfaces" those portions of upholstery or carpeting or drapery should be "thrown away."
It further advises that the bulbs NOT be used in rooms that are frequented by small children or pregnant women.
They advise that there is a "very small amount" of mercury in any given bulb. But they have no idea what damage that amount could potentially cause.
By 2010 these things will be mandated. There will be zillions of them discarded every year into land fills by people that don't have a clue that there is special disposal proceedures.
And just as an FYI they will indeed last a very long time-if you never turn them off.
They are ALL manufactured in China where it is reported that they spill enough Mercury into the atmosphere to negate any environmental advantage they may supposedly engender.
Wait and see how much they will cost when they are the only game in town....

Posted by: mimi123968 | November 3, 2008 12:28 PM | Report abuse

In coin club in 10th grade we played with coins dipped in liquid mercury. I also had Mercurochrome or Merthiolate on my body for cuts etc. I also had a kit that let me melt lead and molds to make it into playthings. The only problem I've seen from all of that is that I worry about people who worry so much.

I worry more about breathing the fumes from dry erase markers.

Posted by: Tojo1 | November 3, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

The mercury in CFLs is not "powder mercury" -- whatever that is. It is mercury vapor, and it is there because when it is excited by electricity it gives off ultraviolet light (the light is converted to visible light by the fluorescent coating on the inside of the bulb, hence the name).
As the mercury is in vapor form it is more dangerous than the mercury I once held in my hand on the playground -- it can be breathed (though liquid mercury, once it is spilled, can vaporize). But it is a very small amount, and simply airing out the room the CFL broke in should be enough to dissipate it.

Posted by: jonawebb | November 3, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Ditto to TexLex - I mean come on - lots of budding scientists kids played with liquid mercury years ago - and we're fine. So we know it's dangerous, but Ms Broken Light Bulb - get a life. You're the type that has gotten the whole society worked up about every little thing.

Posted by: rwalker10 | November 3, 2008 4:01 PM | Report abuse

No, no, no--you all don't get it, or at least most of you don't. It's not the total weight of mercury that matters. It's the form the mercury is in, and whether or not it's bioavailable.

The liquid pure mercury in thermometers that rolls through your fingers and makes little balls on the floor is not in a very bioavailable form. As one of you said, if you eat it, most of it passes right through your system unchanged.

But other, highly bioavailable forms of the metal take only a little to do damage. (Look at those old photographs in Life Magazine of the Japanese children who were exposed to the mercury-containing fish from Minamoto Bay.)

Another important point to consider is that for any toxic substance, sensitivity to the toxic effects varies from person to person, approximately in a bell-shaped distrubution. The technical term for the amount of a substance that will kill half the people in a population is called the "LD50", or "lethal dose 50%". So some people will not have damage from a given exposure, while others will. A few, with just the wrong combination of genes that would otherwise be harmless, might even become Autistic if exposed to a certain dose of mercury at just the wrong age. (But you could never find this out from a study, because those few children would be lumped in with thousands of other autistic children whose autism had nothing to do with mercury. So the signal of that autism-mercury association in a handful of kids would be lost in the noise of all the other causes and attributed to chance if came through at all.)

A third point is that exposures often act in tandem with other exposures, that is, mercury vapor, say, with some other exposure that would prevent the lungs from sweeping the mercury particles out of the respiratory system, say NO2 exposure from a gas stove. And there are other detoxifying systems in the body that can be up- or down-regulated by all sorts of co-exposures (which is the same reason why some prescription drugs should not be taken at the same time with one another or with certain foods).

But, hey, why worry about this stuff--we're American! We're plenty smart already! Besides, look at the Romans--they had bucketloads of lead in their water, but nothing much bad happenned to them!

Besides--physical and occupational therapists and Special Education Teachers have to earn a living somehow...

Posted by: TQWoods | November 3, 2008 8:00 PM | Report abuse

The powder is phosphor and it is what you will see when there is breakage. The mercury is indeed in vapor form. Mercury is contained in a powder form and as a vapor in flurosent lamps. Hence the possible misnomer powder mercury.
I would like to encourage everyone to check out the information on NEWMOA and IMERC and the EPA for themselves.
The CFLs may very well be as harmless as some in this posting believe. But it could not hurt to know all the steps that are recommended by the experts in the field as to breakage and disposal.
Most people have no idea and you are not going to find any useful information on the packaging.
Watch out for your children and pets and look it up.
Mercury is no little thing.....

Posted by: mimi123968 | November 3, 2008 8:06 PM | Report abuse

> No, no, no--you all don't get it, or at least most of you don't. It's not the total weight of mercury that matters. It's the form the mercury is in, and whether or not it's bioavailable.

Yes, methyl mercury is bad stuff, as those Japanese babies sadly illustrated.

If there's a path from CFLs to significant amounts of methyl mercury or other bad mercury compounds in the environment, I'll quickly change my opinion about them.

But until then, not.

Posted by: TexLex | November 3, 2008 8:24 PM | Report abuse

Haven't you ever heard of the potato trick? To remove a broken-off light bulb you jam a spud over the broken part and use that as a handle to unscrew it - then just toss spud and all. Why throw out a whole lamp?
You're in a lot more danger from the glass shards than from the mercury. Honestly, people need to grow some common sense!
Proper disposal/recycling of all waste needs to be done at the place they take the garbage to. Relying on individuals to do it will fail.
And yes, I played with mercury whenever we broke a thermometer. Cool stuff. Never figured out how to get it to silver a penny, though.

Posted by: baddabing1 | November 4, 2008 10:22 AM | Report abuse

I broke one several months ago, while I was pregnant. I had never heard that these bulbs contained mercury, so I just threw away the big pieces and vacuumed up the rest. When I later heard that these bulbs contain mercury, I was not happy. There really should be a label on the package that tells you these bulbs need to be disposed of differently than regular lightbulbs. And I'd bet that most people just toss them in the trash when they burn out, even though they are supposed to be handled as haxardous waste.

I don't buy them anymore, because of this and also because (a) they don't last anywhere near as long as they claim, (b) the quality of light they produce is terrible, and (c) they don't fit in at least half of my fixtures anyway.

I have heard the new LED fixtures that are coming out are supposed to be much better, so I'm interested in seeing how they work.

Posted by: floof | November 4, 2008 4:48 PM | Report abuse

For me, the biggest strike against CFLs in the home is the horrendous quality of light they produce. I get headaches from any kind of fluorescent lighting, whether it's overhead long-tube style, compact skinny-tube style, or curly CFL. I assume it has to do with the flicker rate, and possibly with the "temperature" of the light.

On top of the headaches, the sound practically sets my teeth on edge. I'm very high-frequency sensitive to the point where I can hear the wiring in old houses buzzing. The white noise of lights is maddening. Until the stocks of incandescent bulbs runs out (especially color-balanced ones), I'm going to hold out against CFLs in my own home.

Posted by: urbanangel | November 5, 2008 12:52 PM | Report abuse

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