March 2009 / Links updated 2012 CFLs AND MERCURY
Hysteria or Legitimate Concern?
Occasionally, I meet people who are reluctant to switch to energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) despite a serious interest in living more sustainably. Maybe you're one of them.
I'm guessing that cost is not the problem. You are doubtless aware that even though you pay more up-front for the bulbs, you save in the long run from lower electric bills.
I assume you also know that today's CFLs are comparable, or even superior, to incandescent bulbs in terms of the quality of the light. No more flicker or buzz either.
So, those issues are not what's holding you back. It could be simple inertia -- or it could be the mercury inside the bulb. What if it breaks, you may wonder. Would I have to get the guys in the haz-mat suits in for $2,000, like that woman in Maine was advised to do? Would my children be safe? Would I?
It's true that mercury is a dangerous substance, which can damage the nervous system, brain and other organs at miniscule doses. Young children and fetuses are at greatest risk because their developing brains absorb the mercury easily and don't readily flush it out. During certain stages, so-called "windows of vulnerability," neurotoxins like mercury can throw brain development off course, resulting in problems ranging from memory impairment to mental retardation. Clearly, you are right to be cautious wherever mercury is concerned.
However, you are only at risk of exposure from CFLs if a bulb breaks AND you don't follow a straightforward set of steps when cleaning up. (The woman in Maine was advised incorrectly.) I am going to list the steps on the right. PRINT THIS PAGE or the printer-friendly version and put it in your kitchen where the instructions will be available if you ever need them.
Now you're ready to go out and buy some bulbs.
Families with young children might want to skip over the table or floor lamps in the play area on the off-chance that a lamp gets knocked over when a pillow fight gets out of hand. On the other hand, if you're not the kind of parent who is already worried about the possibility of broken glass, you may feel this precaution is unnecessary.
If and when you are pregnant, do not change the bulbs yourself in case one should happen to break when you screw it in, the same way you wouldn't change kitty litter because of the risk of exposure to Toxoplasma gondii. Simply having and using the CFLs is no problem. You kept your kitty, didn't you?
There is only one other thing I would strongly recommend you do -- recycle the compact fluorescent bulbs when you're done with them so they don't break in the garbage or landfill and jeopardize the health of sanitation workers and the environment. (CFLs are amazingly long-lived, so you won't have to deal with this eventuality for years.) Your town may have a special drop-off place for CFLs or you can take them to your local Home Depot or Ikea. Plug in your zip code at earth911.org to find the drop-off place nearest you.
Meanwhile, if mercury is on your mind, watch what fish you eat (especially if you are pregnant) and what fish you feed your children. Fish consumption is a route of exposure that is not a "what if" like a broken bulb. Larger, predatory fish are known to have high levels of mercury. The ones at the top of the food chain, such as shark, swordfish and big-eye and ahi tuna are the most contaminated and should be avoided altogether. (They are also species whose numbers are perilously low, so shouldn't be eaten for that reason as well.) Other fish, such as Chilean sea bass, bluefish, halibut, snapper, lobster and canned tuna have somewhat lower levels of mercury. You can eat these without undue risk a few times a month (not each one a few times a month but all of them together).
There are also plenty of fish that are low in mercury and safe to eat, such as freshwater trout, sardines, catfish, crawfish and clams. Since fish is part of a healthy diet, you should put these on your shopping list. Download NRDC's wallet guide to fish so you know which fish to buy at the store.
It's important to recognize that our energy use is one of the major causes of mercury contamination of fish in the first place. (The mercury is emitted by coal plants and settles in the water where it is taken up by the fish.) By replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, you will reduce your energy usage and help to reduce the amount of mercury you and others are exposed to.
You will also help in the effort to rein in global warming, which is a much greater risk to your family's welfare down the road.
Honestly, if you are looking to make a difference, switching to compact fluorescent bulbs remains the simplest way.
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
1) Open a window before cleaning up, and turn off any forced-air heating or air conditioning.
2) Instead of sweeping or vacuuming, which can spread
the mercury around, scoop up the glass fragments and powder. Use sticky tape to pick up
remaining glass fragments or powder. Wipe the area
clean with a damp paper towel or wet wipes.
3) Dispose of the broken bulb through your local household hazardous waste program or recycling program. If that service is unavailable in your area, place all clean-up materials in a trash container outside the building.
4) Wash your hands after cleaning up.
5) If vacuuming is needed afterwards, when all visible materials have been removed, vacuum the area and dispose of the vacuum bag in a sealed plastic bag. For the next few times you vacuum, turn off any forced-air heating or air conditioning and open a window before doing so.
The most common risk of mercury exposure to children comes from canned tuna because kids eat so much of it. Give them chunk light tuna rather than white albacore, since it's lower in mercury, and limit the portions and frequency according to their weight. Pregnant women should do the same. Get guidelines here.
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Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. In between issues of This Green Life, she muses aloud on green issues at thisgreenblog.com.