14 March, 2008

USA Bans Incandescent Bulbs in Favor of CFLs, But What About the Dangers of Mercury?

Congress has passed and President Bush has signed a bill banning the sale of incandescent light bulbs by 2014 in favor of compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs).* It sounded good on the surface when I heard about it. Now, while I do love the soft light of incandescent bulbs, and use them in my historic light fixtures, if the new twisty compact fluorescents use up less energy, and if I'm going to be forced to use them anyway, I guess I can cheerfully make the switch for all my light fixtures. Save the planet, and all that.

But then I read about the real dangers of these bulbs, particularly for a klutz like me who is going to break one at some point. I knew they contained mercury, but I didn't know the levels of mercury released can greatly exceed exposure safety limits in the short term. Based on a recent study conducted by the State of Maine on CFL dangers, here's what the EPA is recommending you do if you break a CFL bulb:

Before Clean-up: Ventilate the Room

  1. Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
  2. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
  3. Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces

  1. 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.
  2. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
  3. Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the glass jar or plastic bag.
  4. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

Clean-up Steps for Carpeting or Rug

  1. 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.
  2. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
  3. If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.
  4. 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

  1. Immediately place all cleanup materials outside the building in a trash container or outdoor protected area for the next normal trash.
  2. Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials.
  3. 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

  1. The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window prior to vacuuming.
  2. Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.

Sheesh. Do they really expect everybody to do this?

In addition, CFLs are more expensive to produce, too, and cost the consumer more initially. Do these really balance out the energy savings? Can the current CFL technology really support an outran ban of incandescents?

You can't just toss these bulbs in the trash, either. I looked up the proper procedure for Evanston. It's worth looking up how your town recycles CFL bulbs. Still, how are you going to teach an entire population not to throw out CFLs like they would incandescents? At present, only 2% of such bulbs are being recycled now. That's a lot of hazardous waste already being hauled to the local dump.

I do strongly believe that we need to find more efficient energy technologies. But I think the way to go about it is for Congress to raise the energy standards overall, not ban one technology in favor of another.

*This legislation effectively banned (by January 2014) incandescent bulbs that produce 310 - 2600 lumens of light. Bulbs outside this range (roughly, light bulbs currently less than 40 Watts or more than 150 Watts) are exempt from the ban. Also exempt are several classes of specialty lights, including appliance lamps, "rough service" bulbs, 3-way, colored lamps, and plant lights.

City of Evanston Requirements:

The City of Evanston is cooperating with the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC) and has begun accepting drop-offs of spent compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) for recycling.

Community members may drop off their CFLs Mondays through Fridays during business hours at either the Department of Health and Human Services, 2100 Ridge Ave., 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; or at the Evanston Ecology Center, 2024 McCormick Blvd., 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Bring the bulbs in zip-lock-type baggies.

Health and Human Services will accept fluorescent tube lights; the Ecology Center will not.

Each CFL contains a small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing, an average of five milligrams (roughly equivalent to the tip of a ball-point pen). Mercury poses potential health risks, therefore the CFLs should not be disposed of in the garbage if there is a recycling option.


Anonymous said...

Oh this makes me so mad! We use CFL's in lights that stay on a long time, but a lot of our light fixtures are old and can't handle them. Why the government is even getting involved in this is ridiculous.

Marilyn said...

There are some really scary bits in there - like many things, help vs. hazard just might make it a wash. Thanks for sharing all that good info.

Anonymous said...

Have you had one give up the ghost yet? Very scary, a stinky meltdown. I've broken one, had no idea they were hazardous, swept it up, threw it out with the trash. :|

Ethan@OneProjectCloser said...

It's a tough call. On the one had CFLs are great for saving energy. There's not doubt about it. It's actually better to get rid of other, still functioning bulbs and replace them with CFLs. But your right about the rediculous clean up. And like aimee said, who's the government to tell us what bulbs to use? Just some thoughts.

Ethan One Project Closer

Jean Martha said...

oy vey!!!

Now I have to teach my Mom all this.

modernemama said...

I'm hoping that the cold cathode fluorescents become more widespread - they have less mercury and they are dimmable

Jen said...

A "12 step clean up plan"....eekk!

This new "law" is just a bandaid solution to a much greater energy problem.

Good information.

Jean Martha said...

news article today...