Say goodbye to incandescent bulbs. Say hello to the “new normal”

I missed something pretty big. My life got turned upside down last December so I guess I can see why I missed it. I was looking through videos on YouTube and Google Video today, as I often do, and I came upon some videos about CFLs, Compact Flourescent Lights, particularly how they present different health hazards than incandescents.

We’re used to incandescents. We know you have to be careful storing them and putting them into sockets, lest you drop and break them, or crush them (if improperly stored, or stepped on). They are made of thin glass, so you can get serious cuts from them if you’re not careful. You can electrocute yourself if you try to remove a broken bulb from a fixture without turning the power off. We know all this.

The federal government passed a law with a bunch of energy conservation measures in December. One of its provisions says that it will be illegal for stores to sell incandescent bulbs by the year 2012 2014. What to use instead? CFLs. That’s what everyone seems to be saying anyway. There are LED bulbs on the market now, but they don’t get much play. One review I read of LED bulbs said that their downside is they’re really only good for direct lighting, like a spotlight, penlight, or flashlight, and not so good for lighting a room unless you don’t mind indirect lighting.

CFLs trouble me. Environmentalists used to be concerned about toxins in our environment that could affect our health. They still are concerned with industrial toxic waste sites, but I don’t hear much from them these days about toxins in consumer products. CFLs are an example. I feel like environmentalists are taking their eye off the ball here to favor another set of priorities. Secondly I have the suspicion that some special interests are getting a deal out of this.

As I’ll talk about below, you don’t have to call a toxic waste cleanup company in case you break one of them, but you may want to anyway… Seeing an opportunity, one company I’ve found is selling CFL cleanup and recycling kits for quite a sum.

The following report is from Australia:

It surprises me that environmentalists are so eager to get people to use these things, and are willing to let the issue of hazardous waste disposal be a back burner issue. The report above says that mandatory recycling should take care of the hazard (at least from an environmental standpoint). From where I sit though mandatory recycling isn’t in place yet. Shouldn’t it be?

This strikes me as kind of insane. Basically the message is, “You might be risking your health with these things, but take heart, because you’re preventing global warming.” Somehow I feel like this is like Dumbo’s feather. He thought he needed it to fly, when it was just a symbol, a placebo. Yes, CFLs will save on electricity, but incandescents don’t use that much to begin with. Let’s get some perspective. You’ll save a LOT more by not running TVs/CRTs in your house, running your refrigerator, using an electric stove/oven, using a microwave, and by not running your air conditioning in the summer. This is like focusing on that drip in the kitchen faucet rather than the flood in your basement that occurred because your pipes froze.

These days a lot of people in the environmental and scientific community are concerned about the specter of global warming, CO2 emissions and such. CFLs are supposed to help with this because they consume a fraction of the electricity that incandescents do, last a lot longer, and there’s the good feeling about not putting more waste into landfills. The downside is CFLs contain 5mg of mercury (the Australian report said up to 25mg). Mercury is extremely toxic. Miniscule amounts are dangerous to your health. So long as you do not break a CFL, you’re fine.

You’re encouraged to recycle your bulbs rather than throw them in the trash when they burn out, but from what I’ve read, consumers are not necessarily required to recycle them. It depends on the regulations in your state. You can read more about this here. If you do dispose of them in the trash the EPA asks that you seal each bulb inside two plastic bags beforehand to (hopefully) contain the mercury when the bulbs are crushed by the dump trucks that collect the trash. Somehow I find this to be dubious. Won’t the glass from broken bulbs (or something sharp in the dump truck compactor) puncture the plastic bags?

Home Depot offers a CFL recycling program. Your local community may have a toxic waste disposal site as well where you can drop off your dead CFLs.

With incandescents we’re pretty familiar with what to do if a bulb breaks. You clean up the glass with a broom and pail, use a wet paper towel on a hard surface to collect any small fragments, or use a vacuum cleaner on a rug, and put the broken bulb in the trash. Pretty simple, and takes maybe 10 minutes.

What to do if a CFL breaks? The EPA has some instructions on this. It’s an involved process:

  • Evacuate the room. The reason is that the broken bulb releases mercury as dust/vapor into the room. Close off the room and open windows in it to air it out for 15 minutes. Personally, I’m a bit dubious about the idea of opening the windows, though the idea of inhaling mercury vapor is not appealing. What if it’s a windy day? Couldn’t that spread the dust around the room? The EPA also says to shut off your central heat or air conditioning, since it could spread the mercury dust/vapor to other rooms in the house.
  • Once the room has been aired out: For hard surfaces, clean up the wreckage by carefully scooping up any glass pieces and mercury powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place the debris into a glass jar with a metal lid, or a sealed plastic bag. Do not use a broom or vacuum cleaner on hard surfaces, as this will spread mercury dust. For carpets, the EPA says you can use a vacuum cleaner, but you’ll need to take the vacuum bag out afterwards and put it in a sealed plastic bag immediately. For the newer bagless vacuums you’ll need to dump the contents into a plastic bag, and seal it, and then wipe out the vacuum’s canister.
  • Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining glass fragments and mercury powder (do this both for hard surfaces and carpets. Ugh! Duct tape on carpet!).
  • For a hard surface, wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or wet wipes, and put the paper towel or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag.

The EPA has special instructions for if the glass and/or powder has come in contact with clothes, bedding, or other soft materials. Basically they’re goners. They don’t recommend you try to wipe or wash off the powder. Don’t put these items in a washing machine as the mercury powder may contaminate it. Basically, if you don’t want this stuff hanging around you, you have to throw out the affected items. Kiss them goodbye. The EPA does say that you can wash what you were wearing at the time when you cleaned up the broken CFL, when they (and you, by the way!) were “exposed to the mercury vapor”, so long as what you were wearing didn’t come in direct contact with the mercury powder (on the floor). Oh…GREAT!

One consolation they offer is that shoes are apparently salvageable. If powder gets on them, just wipe them off with damp paper towels or wet wipes (and put the towels/wet wipes in sealed plastic bags). Somehow, I think I’d just trash the shoes. What if the powder got inside them? We sweat profusely in our shoes. I wouldn’t want to absorb that stuff into my skin, thank you!

The last step, immediately place all waste items outside in the trash, that is if your locality/state allows this. In some areas they require you to take the waste items to a recycling center.

Oh. One other thing. The EPA says the next few times you vacuum the room where the CFL broke, shut off the central heating or AC and open the windows before vacuuming it, and keep the heat/AC off and the windows open for 15 minutes after you’re done. Hmm. So there’s going to be some residue, huh?

Now, think about this. How many people even know they’re supposed to do this?? Maybe 0.0001% 3% of the population? (Update 8-9-08: I was emotional and kind of tired when I wrote this part. My math was way off! I’m just guessing, of course, but this is more along the lines of what I meant to communicate) Some who have a clue will call their local poison center for advice. Most people are going to do what they’d do for a broken incandescent bulb, pick up the debris with their bare hands or use a paper towel or washcloth, and then sweep and/or vacuum the area without getting rid of the vacuum bag, and without ventilating the room first. That’s a potential recipe for mercury poisoning. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if cases of this start showing up years down the road.

How many people do you think are going to think to recycle their CFLs, or put their dead ones in plastic bags before they go in the trash? I’m thinking less than the number of people who bother to recycle bottles, cans, and newsaper today, unless governments and/or manufacturers make this real easy.

Cheer up! At least you’re doing your part to prevent global warming…er, right? Cool! You mean I don’t have to buy a hybrid, too? 🙂

Edit: Just to clarify things, I read here that the government is going to “fade out” the sale of incandescents, starting in 2012. They’ll start with the 100 watt bulbs, ending with the 40 watt bulbs in 2014.

I don’t mind energy efficiency. I just wish the bulbs were safer. If someone came up with a bright bulb (full spectrum light would be nice as well) that was much more energy efficient, like CFLs, and didn’t have the hazardous waste problems I’d be all for it.

—Mark Miller,