How Safe are CFL Bulbs in your Home?

Citing the State of Maine’s CFL Breakage Study Report, this article explores the issue whether CFL light bulbs are safe for use throughout your home.

CFLs contain between 1 and 5 mg of mercury. This mercury in the bulb is in vapor form, a form in which mercury is a potent neurotoxin if inhaled. As long as the bulb is unbroken, the mercury is not harmful. As soon as the bulb breaks, the mercury is released into your home and settles on your clothing, furniture and carpeting; and it vaporizes at room temperature and continues to vaporize when disturbed.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been pushing CFL light bulbs for several years, touting their energy savings and benefits for the planet. While the EPA believes it is important to warn mothers against eating mercury-contaminated fish, they have failed to warn mothers about the danger of the vaporized mercury, a potent neurotoxin, in compact fluorescent light bulbs. They are evasive when it comes to defending the safety of CFLs in a home environment, changing the subject to their effect on earth’s ecology rather than the effect on a home’s interior.

For example: “The compact fluorescent light bulb is a product people can use to positively influence the environment to… prevent mercury emissions as well as greenhouse gas emissions,” according to Wendy Reed, who manages EPA’s Energy Star program, as quoted by NPR’s Elizabeth Shogren.

This statement by the EPA’s Energy Star program ignores the fact that the bulbs are manufactured in China, mostly in plants powered by bituminous coal. “CFLs are an environmental hazard from their production, to their breakage in the home, to the waste stream they create,” says Bob Formisano (About.com, January 22, 2011).

In theory there are benefits to using CFLs, but the health hazard due to the possibility of mercury contamination on breakage is substantial and needs to be well-understood by parents so they can assess the risk they assume on behalf of their children.

Do CFLs save energy?

Homeowners buy compact fluorescents for one reason – because they have been told that their energy consumption is lower than that of incandescents, so they can save money on their electric bills. But their energy savings may be illusory. It has been shown that, in actual home use, CFLs do not always achieve the energy savings ascribed to them for these reasons:

  • They are not as efficient (efficacious) as represented because of the effect of interior heat if used upside down or in enclosed spaces and because they lose much of their initial brightness over time, most rapidly in their first year of use.
  • They have 40-50 separate parts. They have a high failure rate due to the use by some manufacturers of low-quality materials in an effort to shave manufacturing costs.

Those who tout these bulbs rarely mention these problems. So be skeptical about their supposed energy savings. With the EPA’s Energy Star program watching out for your interests, you should not be complacent.

Here is what the New York Times wrote about Energy Star’s CFL standards: “Consumers are supposed to be able to protect themselves by buying bulbs certified under the government’s Energy Star program. But experts and some environmental groups complain that Energy Star standards are weak, permitting low-quality bulbs with too high a level of mercury, a toxic metal contained in all compact fluorescents.” (Do New Bulbs Save Energy if They Don’t Work? NYTimes, March 27, 2009)

Mercury in CFLs

The EPA and other biased proponents of using CFL light bulbs have tried to minimize the health hazard of vaporized mercury contamination, making the following arguments:

  • There is so little mercury in a bulb that it is not harmful if handled properly.
    It is true that elemental mercury (a liquid metal) is largely harmless in tiny quantities if it grazes your skin and perhaps even if it is ingested – though we do not suggest trying that. Liquid mercury in a thermometer is not a substantial health hazard. But the mercury that is released when a CFL breaks vaporizes. Its harm comes from breathing it, not from touching it or swallowing it. “It is not uncommon for children to break fever thermometers in their mouths. In the EPA’s own words, “Mercury that is swallowed in such cases poses low risk in comparison to the risk of breathing mercury vapor.”
  • Mercury is released into the air by coal-fired electricity generating plants. Because CFLs use less electricity, less mercury is released by coal plants when we burn them than when we burn incandescents, so fluorescents are safer on this basis.
    Even assuming that CFLs are more efficient than incandescents in actual use, the health hazard we are talking about comes from breaking a bulb in your home, not how much mercury is released outdoors by a coal plant in a neighboring state. That argument is specious and irrelevant.
  • The mercury added to a landfill when a CFL is discarded is tiny and therefore safer for the environment than a discarded incandescent.
    We know of no one who has even attempted to make this silly argument, which is patently false. The mercury in one bulb will not significantly pollute your local landfill, though the mercury in millions of discarded CFLs certainly will have a deleterious impact on the ecosystem. That does not disturb the EPA.

    Indeed, the waste carting industry is on record noting the potential harm to waste handlers of mercury vapor from discarded CFL bulbs, many of which break on their way to landfills. “Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens,” said John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. Nevertheless, while related, it is not the issue of a health hazard inside your home.

When you break a CFL bulb

What should you do when a bulb breaks in your home? The EPA says, clean it up carefully. Here are EPA/Energy Star’s recommendations:

CLEANUP AND DISPOSAL OVERVIEW

The most important steps to reduce exposure to mercury vapor from a broken bulb are:
1. Before cleanup
a. Have people and pets leave the room.
b. Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.
c. Shut off the central forced air heating/air conditioning (H&AC) system, if you have one.
d. Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb.

2. During cleanup
a. Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.
b. Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

3. After cleanup
a. Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of properly. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
b. For several hours, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the H&AC system shut off.
Source: Energy Star

“Air out the room for 5-10 minutes.” According to the EPA, that’s it. In light of testing results that show that mercury vapor released by a single broken bulb adheres to carpet fibers and remains for weeks afterward, Energy Star’s advice is both inadequate and dangerous.

Not everyone is quite so sanguine as the EPA’s Energy Star about mercury cleanup. Here are a few further don’ts that the EPA failed to mention:

PRECAUTIONS YOU SHOULD TAKE DURING THE CLEAN-UP OF MERCURY

    • DO NOT use a vacuum to clean up mercury. The filters in household and even high efficiency vacuums will not remove mercury vapors. Of even greater concern, the vacuum exhaust will put more mercury vapor in the air. The vacuum will also be contaminated. If you already have used a vacuum to clean a spill, carefully place the vacuum in a double bag, seal the bag, and remove it from the building. Quickly isolate the areas as described below because there may be higher amounts of mercury vapor in the air.

      “Vacuuming a carpet where a lamp has broken and been visibly cleaned up, even weeks after the cleanup, can elevate the mercury readings.” (State of Maine DEP study – citation below.)

    • DO NOT use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller beads, further spreading it and making more vapor.

    • DO NOT touch the mercury with your hands. Use latex gloves for proper protection.

    • DO NOT use household cleaners to clean the spill. Some of them could react with the mercury and release harmful gasses.

    • DO NOT allow people whose shoes have contacted mercury to take their shoes beyond the spill area. Further contamination of the building may result.

    • DO NOT put mercury in the trash. Mercury can be released in the environment and will further threaten human health.

    • DO NOT put mercury or mercury-containing items in a burn barrel. Vapors and smoke will be produced releasing mercury into the environment and create an exposure risk.

    • DO NOT pour or allow mercury to go down a drain. It can lodge in the trap, and produce airborne vapor creating an inhalation risk. It will also lead to mercury contamination of the wastewater system.

    • DO NOT wash mercury-contaminated items in a washing machine. Mercury may contaminate the machine and/or be discharged to the environment in wastewater.

Actual testing results from broken CFLs

The State of Maine conducted extensive tests on mercury vapor levels encountered with a broken CFL. Mercury vapor is heavier than air and so settles near the floor. The study confirmed that, despite following EPA’s cleanup guidelines on broken CFLs, researchers were unable to remove mercury from carpet, and disturbing of the carpet — such as by young children playing — created localized concentrations as high as 25,000 nanograms per cubic meter in air close to the carpet, even weeks after the initial breakage.

When the window was opened, mercury levels fell; when the window was closed, mercury levels rose again. (“Maine Compact Fluorescent Lamp Breakage Study Report”, State of Maine, Dept of Environmental Protection, February 2008), as cited by Wikipedia and Bob Formisano at About.com.

Will your babies crawl on that contaminated carpet, getting mercury on their skin and clothes and in their lungs? Will your toddlers play with their toys on that carpet? Will you walk on the carpet, spreading mercury throughout your house?

The State of Maine DEP Report suggests disposing of contaminated carpet: “When a break happens on carpeting, homeowners may consider removing throw rugs or the area of carpet where the breakage occurred as a precaution, particularly if the rug is in an area frequented by infants, small children or pregnant women.”

Breathing mercury vapor is not good for you, your children or your pets

What happens if you breathe mercury vapor? Mercury vapor is a potent neurotoxin. According to the Centers for Disease Control, short-term exposure to mercury vapor causes the following adverse health effects:

    • Cough, sore throat
    • Shortness of breath
    • Chest pain
    • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
    • Increase in blood pressure or heart rate
    • A metallic taste in the mouth
    • Eye irritation
    • Headache
    • Vision problems

And long-term exposure has the following effects:

    • Anxiety
    • Excessive shyness
    • Anorexia
    • Sleeping problems
    • Loss of appetite
    • Irritability
    • Fatigue
    • Forgetfulness
    • Tremors
    • Changes in vision
    • Changes in hearing

“In the past decade, hundreds of Chinese factory workers who manufacture CFLs for export to first world countries were being poisoned and hospitalized because of mercury exposure…At a CFL factory in Jinzhou, 121 out of 123 employees were found to have excessive mercury levels, with one employee’s mercury level 150 times the accepted standard.” (Wikipedia)

Why is the EPA more concerned with the health of the planet than with the health of individual Americans and their children? Why have they been pushing use of compact fluorescents despite their known health hazards? Indeed, why have they been depriving consumers of an informed choice of what kind of light bulbs they use?

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the brilliant Federal legislation that banned incandescent lightbulbs, provided $40 million to “interested parties” to spread the word on the virtues of CFLs for energy efficiency. Not the truth or the whole truth – which might have given you a basis for making an informed judgment, but an article of faith by true believers that these bulbs would save the world.

Should you use CFLs in your home?

Evidence shows clearly that they are not suitable for use throughout your home. Here is one of the recommendations in the State of Maine DEP Report: “Consumers may also consider avoiding CFL usage in bedrooms or carpeted areas frequented by infants, small children, or pregnant women.” Why has the EPA not issued a similar warning to families? The EPA’s bias is palpable.

As a consumer and a parent, you should make up your own mind about the costs you incur and the risks you assume in your home – provided that you are aware what they are. Now you know more about the safety issues and health hazards of using CFL bulbs in your home, and you can decide for yourself whether the putative cost savings are worth the risk to your children’s health.

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