By: John O’Sullivan
Editor Comment: More on CFL bulb dangers.
While world governments create new laws to protect workers from mercury poisoning, ‘eco-friendly’ lightbulbs present increasing dangers in our homes.
Those innocuous looking ‘environmentally safer’ light bulbs that Europeans and Americans must now use to light their home are becoming an increasing cause of health concerns. A study by Germany’s Federal Environment Agency found that when one of them breaks, it emits levels of toxic vapour up to 20 times higher than the safe guideline limit for an indoor area.
If a bulb is smashed, the UK’s Health Protection Agency advice is for householders to evacuate the room and leave it to ventilate for 15 minutes. So worried by the dangers in industry, the U.S. government has recently introduced a whole swath of tighter new legislation to protect employees from the most serious effects of mercury poisoning on the job.
But while workers are being better protected a disconnect appears to have left domestic residents at the highest risk to mercury poisoning they’ve ever faced.
Why is Mercury so Dangerous?
Mercury can travel a range of distances, and may remain in the atmosphere up to one year and even travel globally before undergoing transformation. Particle-bound mercury can fall out of the air over a range of distances and oxidized mercury (sometimes called ionic or reactive gaseous mercury (RGM)) is water-soluble and may be deposited at a range of distances from sources depending on a variety of factors including topographic and meteorological conditions downwind of a source.
Mercury contamination easily flows into bodies of water like lakes and streams. Bacteria in soils and sediments convert mercury to methylmercury. In this form, it is taken up by tiny aquatic plants and animals. Fish that eat these organisms build up methylmercury in their bodies. As ever-bigger fish eat smaller ones, the methylmercury is concentrated further up the food chain. This process is called “bioaccumulation” and can lead to congenital malformalities in all species including humans.
Governments Failing on Domestic Mercury Hazard
In Britain both the general public and waste disposal companies are realising that local civic authorities have little, if and, specialist hazardous waste disposal teams able to deal with the problem on a wide scale.
Smaller authorized, in particular, are increasingly being caught out having no policies in place as to how to address the domestic disposal of low energy eco bulbs that are filled with poisonous mercury; a major hazard causing long-term and irreparable contamination of land and water.
Specialist ‘Hazmat’ ( ‘hazardous materials’) companies will charge a hefty sum to safely dispose of consumer and industrial mercury eco lightbulbs. I telephoned one UK company, Envirogreen and they advised me that their minimum call out charge for hazmat collection of mercury-filled lightbulbs is £325 (US$500) even for just one bulb!
Meanwhile in the U.S. the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tells us that,“Recyclers generally require that the light bulbs arrive unbroken” – heaven help you if you have a mishap and bulbs break in your home.
Elemental Mercury Vapor – the Greatest Domestic Danger
The real worry is that the eco light bulb contains elemental mercury. After a spill of elemental mercury evaporation soon starts and then your problem is that you’re dealing with an invisible, odorless toxic vapor. This is especially true in warm or poorly-ventilated rooms or spaces.
The EPA website warns that if a fluorescent light bulb breaks in your home and the mercury is released as mercury vapor then you’re in real danger of being contaminated and poisoned. They advise that the “ broken bulb can continue to release mercury vapor until it is cleaned up and removed from the residence.”
Ideally if you were at work and not in your home you’d be far better protected by all that wonderful new EPA legislation. But as a domestic user you’re now in big trouble as the EPA admits.
Householders rather than industry face the toughest access to ‘Hazmat’ essential safety disposal services. EPA admits such services are often unavailable or in remote locations. Also they admit such specialist collection services “sometimes collect household hazardous wastes only once or twice a year, so residents will have to hold on to their light bulbs until the collection takes place.”
You got that? If you break your light bulb you may need to keep the spilled toxic mercury in your household for up to a year. Not a pleasant prospect if you’re a family that has inquisitive young fingers.
Protect Your Family – Especially Infants and Unborn
The EPA warns that it’s the unborn and infants who face the greatest risk. Their website states that, “some mothers with no symptoms of nervous system damage gave birth to infants with severe disabilities and it became clear that the developing nervous system of the fetus may be more vulnerable to methylmercury than is the adult nervous system.Also, mothers exposed to methylmercury and are breast-feed their babies are also likely to expose their infant children to poisoning through their milk.”
For more visit the EPA website under ‘What to Do if a Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) Bulb or Fluorescent Tube Light Bulb Breaks in Your Home.’Here the experts advise the following steps to avoid harm:
- Have people and pets leave the room.
- Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.
- Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.
- Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb.
- Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.
- Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.
But once you’ve done your clean this is where your real headache starts. In the sue-happy United States householders are under a legal ‘Duty of Care’ to ensure that eco light bulbs are not placed in amongst regular garbage but must be disposed of safely. So you are liable if you fail to safely dispose of the broken light bulb at the nearest certificated Hazmat disposal facility.
The True Scale of the Mercury Poisoning Problem
It’s just a worrying in Britain where research shows that there are more than 100 million fluorescent and highway lamps used in the UK alone each year. They produce in excess of 3,100 tonnes of waste material that, until recently, has ended up in landfill sites.
Despite each eco bulb containing just a small amount of mercury the sheer volume of waste in Britain means that vast quantities of hazardous mercury may be getting into land and water supplies. For example, mercury from only one fluorescent tube can contaminate up to 30,000 litres of water beyond a safe standard for drinking.
The Hazardous Waste Regulations 2005, which came into force in July 2005, incorporated the European Waste Catalogue definitions to assess waste, under these definitions fluorescent tubes are classed as Hazardous Waste and MUST be handled in accordance with the regulation.
EPA Makes Mercury a Serious Toxic Poison Issue
In December 2010 the EPA implemented new regulations on mining under Section 112(c)(6) of the Clean Air Act due to the dangers of mercury emissions. So fearful has the EPA become of the dangers of mercury contamination that in November 2010 it then updated the Mercury Export Ban Act and developed a frequent questions document to help the public understand and comply with the Act.
These tough new standards cover more than 200,000 boilers and incinerators that emit serious pollutants such as mercury. Thus if you work at such a facility you’re safer, but when you return home you revert to being a vulnerable and unprotected domestic user. But remember – at least you’re now ‘eco-friendly!’
Then in February 2011 the EPA further established practical and protective Clean Air Act emissions standards for large and small boilers and incinerators that burn solid waste and sewage sludge including mercury.
So, as we see, while our gloriously greener governments are cracking down on industrial hazards from mercury they are encouraging families to store hazardous broken mercury light bulbs in their homes for up to a year (Read the final regulation | Fact sheet (PDF) ).
Press and Public Concern Over Mercury Grows
In the UK the Mail Online highlighted the disconnect between do-gooders’ desires to protect the planet and the failure to think through the consequences of legislation compelling the use of poisonous mercury-filled light bulbs.
In the article ‘We will not pick up toxic new bulbs’: Councils say energy-saving lights are too dangerous for binmen’ (March 6 2011) reporter, George Arbuthnott, caused a furore by revealing that local civic garbage collectors are fearful of mercury contamination and are refusing to collect household waste they suspect contains broken eco-light bulbs.
One bemused commenter on the Mail article had this to say on this new eco-farce: “How will the binmen know if I put a light bulb in my wheelie bin? Are they going to sift through the contents?”
One cynic mused, “I bet the oil companies are laughing now that they have found a way to dispose of the mercury that used to be called ‘waste.’”
But there may be less room for jokes once the first recorded death of a child due to mercury poisoning from a broken eco-light bulb hits the news.
Source: John O’Sullivan