Monday, April 14, 2008

Scientific American on compact fluorescent light bulbs - toxic waste or not?

We'd be using compact fluorescent bulbs -- except I'm kind of clumsy. I break a few bulbs every year. According to the EPA a broken bulb is a toxic waste spill. The incongruity of one part of government advocating fluorescents, and another department warning against them, made me dig in my heels ...

... A commenter pointed to this Energy Star Canada document. It's deeply "schizophrenic" in the non-medical sense of term. On the one hand it says:

  • These are perfectly safe for your baby's bedroom. Don't worry about them. You could break one a day for the rest of your days and not have a problem.
  • They must be disposed of as toxic waste. Vacuum up carefully and then drop your vacuum off at the toxic waste site ...
I'm joking about the vacuum. Sorry, this still doesn't make sense. Either the mercury content is harmless and they're not toxic waste, or they're toxic waste. (My bet is they're not really toxic waste, but I'm not buying 'em until we get the regulators to be internally consistent.)

Recently Scientific American covered this topic. Some highlights (emphases mine):

Are Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs Dangerous?: Scientific American

... Compact fluorescents, like their tubular fluorescent precursors, contain a small amount of mercury—typically around five milligrams.

As effective as it is at enabling white light, however, mercury—sometimes called quicksilver—is also highly toxic. It is especially harmful to the brains of both fetuses and children. That's why officials have curtailed or banned its use in applications from thermometers to automotive and thermostat switches. (A single thermostat switch, still common in many homes, may contain 3,000 milligrams (0.1 ounce) of mercury, or as much as 600 compact fluorescents.)

Jim Berlow, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Hazardous Waste Minimization and Management Division, recommends starting by opening the windows and stepping outside. "Any problems at all frequently are handled for the most part by quickly ventilating the room," he says. "Get all the people and pets out of the room for 15 minutes and let the room air out. If you have a central heating system or an HVAC [heating, ventilating and air-conditioning] system, you don't want it sucking the fumes around, so shut that down."

... After airing out the room, the larger pieces of the bulb should be scooped off hard surfaces with stiff paper or cardboard or picked up off carpeted surfaces with gloves to avoid contact. Use sticky tape or duct tape to pick up smaller fragments; then, on hard surfaces, wipe down the area with a damp paper towel or a wet wipe. All materials should be placed in a sealable plastic bag or, even better, in a glass jar with a metal lid.

...Vacuums or brooms should generally be avoided, as they can spread mercury to other parts of the house.

Intact bulbs can be a headache to dispose of, too. In many locales it is illegal to throw fluorescents out with regular garbage, but the closest recycling or take-back facility may be miles away...

"Our first preference is not to see them go into landfills," Berlow says. "Recycling really closes the loop on this as best we can right now. But on the other hand, we also don't see huge risks from them going into landfills, either."

So the authorities aren't budging on the toxic waste cleanup routine, and legal disposal of even an intact bulb requires a significant trip (I have years of toxic waste dump material in the garage waiting for me to schedule that trip).

I'm waiting for the LEDs.

PS. I'm sure as heck not touching that thermostat switch ...

2 comments:

Johnny 5 said...

As someone who sells light bulbs for a living, I am less enthusiastic than most about compact fluorescent bulbs. This is due to the fact that the ones currently available contain significant amounts of mercury. If one of these bulbs should break inside of a person’s home, it could cause a challenging disposal situation. It is my belief that the technology should progress to a point at which the mercury levels are low or nonexistent before people changeover their entire homes. Another consideration is that as these bulbs burn out, they will most likely be thrown away as though they are normal rubbish and landfills will have incredibly high levels of mercury in their soil as a result.

Krissy said...

Most CFLs today on the market contain less than 5mgs of mercury and there are CFL options out there that contain as little as 1.5mgs of mercury- which can hardly be called a “significant amounts of mercury” considering that many item in your home contain 100s of times more of mercury including your computer. Mercury levels in CFLs can never be “nonexistent” since mercury is a necessary component of a CFL and there is no other known element that is capable of replacing it. But CFLs actually prevent more mercury from entering the environment. According to the Union of Concerned Scientist, “a coal-fired power plant will emit about four times more mercury to keep an incandescent bulb glowing, compared with a CFL of the same light output”.