Mercury in Compact Fluorescent Bulbs More Hazardous than Previously Thought

Environmental scientists and waste industry officials are warning that a massive shift to compact fluorescent light bulbs will lead to far more mercury contamination than has been widely supposed.
Compact fluorescent light bulbs use mercury and heated gas to generate light, in contrast to traditional incandescent bulbs, which generate light by heating up a wire filament. The fluorescent bulbs have been touted as an important step in reducing energy consumption, because they use only half as much energy as incandescent bulbs and last nearly seven times as long.
And while it has always been known that the mercury in the bulbs is a dangerous neurotoxin, it has been generally assumed that the bulbs are safe, since consumers are only exposed to the chemical if the bulb breaks.
If a bulb does break, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises a complex, 11-step process for safely disposing of it. The room should be aired out for 15 minutes to dispose of any fumes, then the bulb should be picked up with gloves, placed in a double bag and disposed of as toxic waste. Duct tape should be used to do clean up residue, never a vacuum cleaner. The next time the area is vacuumed, the bag must be disposed of immediately.
“It’s kind of ironic that on the one hand, the agency is saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s a very small amount of mercury.’ Then they have a whole page of [instructions] how to handle the situation if you break one,” said Ellen Silbergeld of Johns Hopkins University, editor of the journal Environmental Research.

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