The Dark Side of Green Light

Just when we were feeling good about changing all those incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents (CFLs), we learn that they're filled with two toxic chemicals--mercury and phosphor. But that's not all. If you break one, you're in for a massive, nightmarish cleanup. And what should we do about "dead" bulbs? How do we dispose of them? Here's the EPA on what to do when the bulb breaks.

Before Clean-up: Ventilate 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 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.
-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 and place them 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.

Disposal of Clean-up Materials
-Immediately place all cleanup materials outside the building in a trash container or outdoor protected area for the next normal trash.
-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 prohibit such trash disposal and require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug:
-Ventilate 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 prior to vacuuming.
-Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.

I don't know about you, but I think this calls for a moon suit and a level 4 lab room, the kind where they test toxic viruses like Ebola. Who knew? None of my "green" friends. The canary in the coal mine in terms of mercury is actually the loon that nests in the Northeast. According to scientists at the Wildlife Conservation Society, the BioDiversity Research Institute and others, the loon is being threatened by mercury emissions. I think that some of this toxicity may be caused by the production or disposal of CFLs.

Don't despair. There may be a new solution. A Canadian company called Group IV Semiconductor is working on a silcon light bulb that contains a tiny computer chip--what else? They have a way to go before they are brought to market, but I hope they can get the bugs out fast, before we have a toxic waste problem that could make every landfill in America eligible as a superfund site.

In the meantime, Consumer Reports mentions a service called Recyclepack, which sells you a box that holds 12 used CFLs. The box is prepaid to FEDEX and shipped to a recycling center.

Until we have better solutions, tell your friends, get the box, and don't break the bulb.


Anonymous said…
Don't be so quick to blame CFLs. US EPA reports annual atmospheric mercury releases in the US of about 100 tons, less than 1 ton comes from fluorescent lighting. The big culprit? Coal compustion, mostly used for electric generation.

But of course, try not to break the bulb. And recycle it when it burns out.

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