Lightbulbs break all the time. So why would a single broken bulb in a Maine household trigger the state's Department of Environmental Protection to refer the homeowner to a decontaminator?
The answer lies in the type of bulb that broke—a compact fluorescent lightbulb—and what was inside that bulb. Compact fluorescents, like their tubular fluorescent precursors, contain a small amount of mercury—typically around five milligrams. Mercury is essential to a fluorescent bulb's ability to emit light; no other element has proved as efficient.
As effective as it is at enabling white light, however, mercury—sometimes called quicksilver—is also highly toxic. It is especially harmful to the brains of both fetuses and children. That's why officials have curtailed or banned its use in applications from thermometers to automotive and thermostat switches. (A single thermostat switch, still common in many homes, may contain 3,000 milligrams (0.1 ounce) of mercury, or as much as 600 compact fluorescents.)
The problem comes when a bulb breaks. Mercury escapes as vapor that can be inhaled and as a fine powder that can settle into carpet and other textiles. At least one case of mercury poisoning has been linked to fluorescents: A 1987 article in Pediatrics describes a 23-month-old who suffered weight loss and severe rashes after a carton of eight-foot (2.4-meter) tubular bulbs broke in a play area.
State and federal government agencies say that breakages, though deserving of caution, can usually be cleaned up inexpensively with household goods. (In the Maine case, the state acknowledges providing the referral but insists the homeowner was informed that such a step was unnecessary.)
Jim Berlow, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Hazardous Waste Minimization and Management Division, recommends starting by opening the windows and stepping outside. "Any problems at all frequently are handled for the most part by quickly ventilating the room," he says. "Get all the people and pets out of the room for 15 minutes and let the room air out. If you have a central heating system or an HVAC [heating, ventilating and air-conditioning] system, you don't want it sucking the fumes around, so shut that down."
The important thing is not to touch the heavy metal. After airing out the room, the larger pieces of the bulb should be scooped off hard surfaces with stiff paper or cardboard or picked up off carpeted surfaces with gloves to avoid contact. Use sticky tape or duct tape to pick up smaller fragments; then, on hard surfaces, wipe down the area with a damp paper towel or a wet wipe. All materials should be placed in a sealable plastic bag or, even better, in a glass jar with a metal lid.
"If it gets in the jar, that's pretty good containment," Berlow states. "We've found that the plastic bags actually don't contain any mercury fumes, so absolutely, if you've got the plastic bag, get it outside when you're done." Vacuums or brooms should generally be avoided, as they can spread mercury to other parts of the house.
Intact bulbs can be a headache to dispose of, too. In many locales it is illegal to throw fluorescents out with regular garbage, but the closest recycling or take-back facility may be miles away. (And, given the number of bottles and cans that end up in landfills despite the prevalence of curbside recycling programs, it seems likely that any barrier to recycling will make for relatively low reclamation rates; in 2004 the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers estimated a residential mercury bulb recycling rate of 2 percent.) Many municipal waste facilities and some vendors accept fluorescents; the EPA and Earth 911 maintain online directories of collection sites. Among major retailers of fluorescents, IKEA offers to take back compact fluorescent bulbs in its stores free of charge.
"Our first preference is not to see them go into landfills," Berlow says. "Recycling really closes the loop on this as best we can right now. But on the other hand, we also don't see huge risks from them going into landfills, either."
And compact fluorescent bulbs actually reduce the mercury pollution from the single largest U.S. source: coal-fired power plants. "Probably the most important thing that people need to connect with compact fluorescents is that they save significant quantities of energy," Berlow adds. "We're talking about two thirds to three quarters of the energy associated with lighting being reduced."
James Dakin, senior consulting engineer at GE Lighting in Cleveland, says that a mercury-free lighting replacement may be in the works: light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are advancing rapidly. "LEDs are perhaps the most promising mercury-free alternative," he says, "but they currently fall far short in the overall efficiency/color/cost trade-off."
But for as long as fluorescents reign, don't look for a mercury phaseout. "Lots of other atoms and molecules have been investigated," Dakin explains, "but nobody has found anything as practical and efficient as mercury."