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High-efficient lightbulbs come with mercury risk

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / February 25, 2008

Compact fluorescent lights -- those energy-efficient bulbs popular as a way to combat global warming -- can pose a small risk of mercury poisoning to infants, young children and pregnant women if they break, two reports concluded today.

But the reports, issued by the state of Maine and the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project, urged homeowners to keep using the bulbs because their energy-saving benefits far outweigh the risk posed by mercury release from any broken light. They said most danger could be avoided if people exercised common-sense caution, such as not using the bulbs in table lamps that could be knocked over by children or pets and properly cleaning up broken bulbs.

The US Environmental Protection Agency and the states of Massachusetts and Vermont said yesterday they are revising their disposal recommendations based on the Maine study.

"Using compact fluorescent bulbs is still the brightest idea out there," said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project/Zero Mercury Working Group, a Vermont-based non-profit that works to eliminate mercury use. "The message is people should not be afraid but informed and prepared, and learn how to dispose of them properly."

The two reports comprise one of the most comprehensive examinations of the dangers posed by the lights, which use about 1/100th of the amount of mercury found in old thermometers. Mercury makes the fragile bulbs glow brightly, and there are no known substitutes for it. No mercury is emitted when the bulbs are used, but a small amount is vaporized when the bulbs break, which can happen if people screw them in holding the glass instead of the base or drop them.

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal that accumulates in the body and can harm the nervous system of a fetus or young child if ingested in enough quantity. Most people are exposed to the metal by eating fish.

The Maine study, which shattered 65 bulbs to test air quality and clean-up methods made these recommendations: If a bulb breaks, get children and pets out of the room. Ventilate the room. Never use a vacuum -- even on a rug -- to clean up a compact fluorescent light. Instead, while wearing rubber gloves, use stiff paper such as index cards and tape to pick up pieces, then wipe the area with a wet wipe or damp paper towel. If there are young children or pregnant woman in the house, consider cutting out the piece of carpet where the bulb broke. Use a glass jar with a screw top to contain the shards and clean-up debris.

“We found some very high levels (of mercury), even after we tried a number of clean-up techniques," said Mark Hyland, Maine director of the Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management. During several of the experiments, for example, he said mercury in the air was more than 100 times levels considered safe even after a floor was cleaned. He said such levels would quickly decline if the room were ventilated and people followed their tips.

Sales are booming for compact fluorescent lights -- which use about 75 percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs. As consumers become more aware of global warming and the bulbs’ long-term cost savings, sales are skyrocketing in the United States, with more than 290 million of the bulbs sold last year, nearly double those sold in 2006.

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