Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Do I Need a Haz Mat Suit for This? And Other Questions...

The other day, my son was trying to get a clean shirt off of the bar that used to hold worked on bikes in our laundry room and now holds drying clothes. We still haven't fixed our dryer. Which is OK, except I want to wash bedding and towels and not have them be stiff and rough. It's OK when they're drying outside on the line in warm weather--it's more than OK, it's very nice. But line drying inside during the winter isn't the same. We have to fix the dryer.

As my son struggled with the shirt and then finally was able to whip it down, he inadvertently smashed the shirt into a CFL bulb. He didn't know of any particular problem with that, but he told me what had happened right away. I looked into the laundry room and saw a scattering of tiny broken glass shards. Uh oh.

I had remembered that you need to leave the room and air it out for at least 15 minutes before trying to clean it all up. I had read a mention of mercury vapor somewhere. My son got worried, and thought he had poisoned his family. No, he hadn't. But, there is some concern involved with the clean up of mercury filled CFL bulbs.

I googled it and found this lengthy explanation:

What to Do if a Fluorescent Light Bulb Breaks

Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) are lighting more homes than ever before, and EPA is encouraging Americans to use and recycle them safely. Carefully recycling CFLs prevents the release of mercury into the environment and allows for the reuse of glass, metals and other materials that make up fluorescent lights.

EPA is continually reviewing its clean-up and disposal recommendations for CFLs to ensure that the Agency presents the most up-to-date information for consumers and businesses. Maine's Department of Environmental Protection released a CFL breakage study report Exit EPA Disclaimer on February 25, 2008. EPA has conducted an initial review of this study and, as a result of this review, we have updated the CFL cleanup instructions below.

Pending the completion of a full review of the Maine study, EPA will determine whether additional changes to the cleanup recommendations are warranted. The agency plans to conduct its own study on CFLs after thorough review of the Maine study.

Fluorescent light bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. EPA recommends the following clean-up and disposal below. Please also read the information on this page about what never to do with a mercury spill.

Before Clean-up: Air Out the Room

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

Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces

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

Clean-up Steps for Carpeting or Rug

  • 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.
  • Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
  • If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.
  • Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.

Clean-up Steps for Clothing, Bedding and Other Soft Materials

  • If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away. Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.
  • You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, such as the clothing you are wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.
  • If shoes come into direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from the bulb, wipe them off with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal.

Disposal of Clean-up Materials

  • Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup.
  • Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials.
  • Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug: Air Out the Room During and After Vacuuming

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

Doesn't that all sound very scary? Is this a huge health threat for my family? What does the 15 minutes of airing out give us, really? Why not 10 or 20? Are there residual bits of mercury lurking amidst the dust bunnies and kicked out granules of kitty litter? What are we playing at here? Why is there mercury in these bulbs? What does it do? Can we make them without the mercury?

My final question: Was it a huge health hazard for my husband as a little boy, when his chemist father would let him play with liquid mercury in his hands 'cause it's soooo cool?



Shez said...

I've wondered about my childhood exploits with mercury. I had my own test tube of mercury that I used to play with.

Let's also not forget how I used to melt down lead and cast my own "ornaments".

Haven't been commenting, but have been reading. thoroughly enjoyed all your political posts.

Laura said...

Thanks Shez. I'm glad you're here.

I used to squeeze lead sinkers onto fishing line with my teeth when I went fishing with my dad. I wouldn't let my kids do that now. And, as cool as mercury is, I wouldn't let my kids play with it.

I wonder what all our kids are exposed to now that will seem crazy in the future...

Joanne (True Blue) said...

I just linked to your story.

Now we have to worry about skin damage from these light bulbs.

Joanne (True Blue) said...

Link here, BTW.

Laura said...

They are worrisome. But, supposedly the mercury released by coal powered plants making electricity is far greater. So, overall less exposure to mercury with these more efficient bulbs...but I still don't want mercury exploded all over my laundry room floor.

DoulaMomma said...

wow - how did I have NO IDEA about this?! thanks!

Idabel Oklahoma said...

We use to break thermomiters and play with the mercury when we were little....guess that explains a lot of what's wrong with us.

Idabel Oklahoma said...


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