There’s a lot most people don’t know about compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). The advertising message tells people that CFLs are “green” solutions that will help save the planet, and a few bucks on household electric bills. It’s also a common belief that the bulbs last five years between replacements. This notion probably stems from the 5- year guarantee on GE’s CFL bulbs. Here’s the catch: The guarantee is based on 4 hours of use per day for five years, and the bulb must be mailed back with receipt and proof of purchase for a refund if it fails to last 7,300 hours. The price of postage may exceed the cost of replacing the bulb and this expense is borne by the consumer. Probably not many get sent back, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they do not last the advertised five years under normal conditions. Some have been reported to burn out in a year or less.
CFLs, as many consumers have discovered to their dismay, do not function properly with dimmer switches. They need the full voltage to operate and attempting to use a CFL with a dimmer switch voids its warranty.
According to GE, CFLs should not be used in an enclosed fixture, like a ceiling fan light because this can cause them to overheat. Applications that produce vibration should also be avoided, so CFLs are a poor choice for garage door openers and are doubly bad for ceiling fans. Additionally, CFLs tend to literally burn out at the end of their life, melting plastic and other components, emitting smoke and toxic vapor. In rare instances this has led to house fires.
Compact fluorescent lights are known to cause radio frequency interference with wireless networks and cordless phones.
Beginning in 2012, thanks to a new federal law enacted in 2007, Edison’s incandescent light bulb, the very symbol of American innovation for over a century will be banned. Many people are unaware of the approaching light bulb ban, probably due, at least in part to the fact that Congress designed the ban to take effect seven years after it was passed. Compact fluorescent lights will soon be the only electric lighting option for household use.
Who was behind this push? The biggest manufacturer of Edison-style light bulbs in the country was also the main lobbyist to ban them. Why? Don’t delude yourself into thinking that GE had a change of conscience moment. They had developed a new light bulb (ie: better mousetrap), but it was too expensive to market. The solution was to lobby congress with all their financial might to ban their own product, so smaller manufacturers couldn’t keep up, raising their sales from 30 cents (or so) per bulb to $11, and closing out smaller competitors who aren’t ready to roll out new light bulb options.
Most people have heard that CFLs contain mercury, but they’ve probably also heard the message from CFL manufacturers and some government agencies that the amount of mercury in each CFL is small and not a serious concern.
Let’s take a look at what the EPA has to say about mercury and then a specific look at what they say about CFLs.
General Information From Mercury’s Response Book (for Emergency Responders)
Adverse human health effects can result from acute or chronic exposure to mercury. Exposure occurs primarily through inhalation, and to a lesser extent through skin absorption or ingestion. Acute exposure to high levels of elemental mercury vapor can affect the brain and the central nervous system. Exposure to high levels of mercury vapor can also cause symptoms such as irritation to the lining of the mouth, lungs, and airways; increased blood pressure and heart rate; nausea; vomiting; diarrhea; skin rashes; eye irritation; and a condition known as acrodynia. Acrodynia is a syndrome characterized by red peeling skin, especially on the hands, feet, and nose. Exposure may also include symptoms such as weakness, fretfulness, sleeplessness, excessive salivation or sweating, itching, swelling, fever, memory loss, and elevated blood pressure.
Even a small amount of mercury remaining in a room after a spill can continue to evaporate slowly over time, resulting in elevated concentrations of mercury in the air, thus presenting the threat of chronic exposure. Symptoms of chronic exposure to elemental mercury include personality changes (irritability, shyness, nervousness); tremors; vision changes; deafness; lack of muscle coordination; loss of sensation; and memory difficulties. For pregnant women, mercury exposure is of particular concern because mercury readily passes across the placenta and can accumulate in higher concentrations in the developing fetus. Young children also are susceptible to the effects of mercury because it affects the central nervous system, which is still developing in the first few years of life. Even low levels of mercury exposure have been associated with learning problems in children. Mercury absorbed through the lungs, gastrointestinal tract, or the skin can accumulate in the brain and kidney, and it is excreted slowly from the body. Because mercury can accumulate in the kidneys, the kidneys are particularly sensitive to damage. Exposure to mercury can be verified by testing blood, urine, or hair samples. Individuals who have elevated levels of mercury in their body can be treated with “chelating agents” to increase the rate of excretion of mercury from the body (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ATSDR, Toxicological Profile for Mercury, Update, March 1999).
What Never to Do with a Mercury Spill
- Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury (but see the “What to Do if a Fluorescent Light Bulb Breaks” section below for more specific instructions about vacuuming broken fluorescent light bulbs). The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure.
- Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.
- Never pour mercury down a drain. It may lodge in the plumbing and cause future problems during plumbing repairs. If discharged, it can cause pollution of the septic tank or sewage treatment plant.
- Never wash clothing or other items that have come in direct contact with mercury in a washing machine, because mercury may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage. Clothing that has come into direct contact with mercury should be discarded. By “direct contact,” we mean that mercury was (or has been) spilled directly on the clothing. For example:
- if you broke a mercury thermometer and some of elemental mercury beads came in contact with your clothing, or
- if you broke a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL) so that broken glass and other material from the bulb, including mercury-containing powder, came into contact with your clothing.
- Never walk around if your shoes might be contaminated with mercury. Contaminated clothing can also spread mercury around.
What to Do if a Fluorescent Light Bulb Breaks
Fluorescent light bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. EPA recommends the following clean-up and disposal below. Please also read the information on this page about what never to do with a mercury spill.
Before Clean-up: Air Out the Room
- Have people and pets leave the room, and don’t let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
- Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
- Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.
Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces
- Carefully scoop up glass pieces 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.
- Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
- Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.
- Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.
Clean-up Steps for Carpeting or Rug
- Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
- Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
- If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.
- Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.
Clean-up Steps for Clothing, Bedding and Other Soft Materials
- If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away. Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.
- You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, such as the clothing you are wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.
- If shoes come into direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from the bulb, wipe them off with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal.
Disposal of Clean-up Materials
- Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup.
- Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials.
- Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.
Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug: Air Out the Room During and After Vacuuming
- The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.
- Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.
It should be noted that the EPA recently revised its CFL cleanup recommendations to the above based on a CFL breakage study conducted by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. In addition to the above steps, Maine’s study explains some of the dangers of mercury, how much gets into the air when a CFL breaks and goes into greater detail about cleanup.
Maine Department of Environmental Protection CFL Study Executive Summary
Forty five (45) experimental trials where compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) were broken in a small/moderate sized room were conducted in May through September of 2007. Eighteen (18) trials, three trials each of six differing scenarios, were originally planned for this study; however, additional trials were added to attempt to more fully address potential cleanup concerns. Broken lamps were either not cleaned up, cleaned up using Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) pre-study cleanup guidance, vacuumed, or cleaned up using variations of the pre-study cleanup guidance. The mercury concentrations at the five foot height (adult breathing zone) and one foot height (infant/toddler breathing zone)Â above the study room floor were continuously monitored. The most notable finding of the study was how variable the results can be depending on the type of lamp, level of ventilation and cleanup method.The pre-study cleanup guidance was generally found to be sound, including the advice to not vacuum as part of the cleanup. However as a result of this study, the cleanup guidance was modified. The new cleanup guidance can be seen in Appendix E. Mercury concentration in the study room air often exceeds the Maine Ambient Air Guideline (MAAG) of 300 nanograms per cubic meter (ng/m3) for some period of time, with short excursions over 25,000 ng/m3, sometimes over 50,000 ng/m3, and possibly over 100,000 ng/m3 from the breakage of a single compact fluorescent lamp. A short period of venting can, in most cases, significantly reduce the mercury air concentrations after breakage. Concentrations can sometimes rebound when rooms are no longer vented, particularly with certain types of lamps and during/after vacuuming. Mercury readings at the one foot height tend to be greater than at the five foot height in non vacuumed situations.
Although following the pre-study cleanup guidance produces visibly clean flooring surfaces for both wood and carpets (shag and short nap), all types of flooring surfaces tested can retain mercury sources even when visibly clean. Flooring surfaces, once visibly clean, can emit mercury immediately at the source that can be greater than 50,000 ng/m3. Flooring surfaces that still contain mercury sources emit more mercury when agitated than when not agitated. This mercury source in the carpeting has particular significance for children rolling around on a floor, babies crawling, or non mobile infants placed on the floor.
Cleaning up a broken CFL by vacuuming up the smaller debris particles in an un-vented room can elevate mercury concentrations over the MAAG in the room and it can linger at these levels for hours. Vacuuming tends to mix the air within the room such that the one foot and five foot heights are similar immediately after vacuuming. A vacuum can become contaminated by mercury such that it cannot be easily decontaminated. Vacuuming a carpet where a lamp has broken and been visibly cleaned up, even weeks after the cleanup, can elevate the mercury readings over the MAAG in an un-vented room.
Some container types were found to be better than others for containing mercury emissions from breakage. Of the containers tested, a glass jar with a metal cover and gum seal contained the mercury vapor best. Double re-sealable polyethylene bags, on the other hand, did not appear to retard the migration of mercury adequately to maintain room air concentrations below the MAAG. Other containers fell somewhere in the middle between the glass and double re-sealable polyethylene bags for retarding mercury vapor migration. The significance of this issue is that cleanup material may remain in the home for some period of time and/or be transported inside a closed vehicle, exposing occupants to avoidable mercury vapors when improperly contained.
The decision on whether or not to remove carpet where there was a broken lamp may depend on a number of factors including the location of the carpet (e.g. where a child plays or where the carpet is frequently agitated), the occupants of the household, or possibly the type of lamp broken. Finally, it is unclear what the exact health risks are from exposure to low levels of elemental mercury, especially for sensitive populations, so advising for the careful handling and thoughtful placement of CFLs may be important. Based on this study, DEP modified the cleanup guidance for a broken CFL
The complete study can be read at the state of Maineâ€™s official website.
There’s plenty more to know about CFLs, like the fact that the government of New Zealand found that CFLs can lead to rolling blackouts in the power grid due to a phenomenon called harmonic distortion. Will they save a few bucks on an electric bill? Maybe, but is it really worth it? Whether it is or not, starting in 2012, we’ll have no choice but to use them thanks to federal mandate. Ready or not, here they come!
Help spread the word on CFLs with our “Freedom vs. Tyranny” Light Bulbs T-shirt.