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April 26, 2007

The only thing you need to fear

Cautionary note for all of us who use those squiggly shaped fluorescent bulbs, commonly called "CFL's". First, a little story that's being passed 'round the internet.

A Maine resident, named Brandy Bridges feels the need to save environmental resources and maybe a few bucks in electrical bills. She comes back from the store one day and replaces all the incandescent bulbs with CFL's. Before long, one of the CFL's breaks on the carpeted floor in her daughters bedroom.

Being a keen observer of labels, Brandy notes something about CFL's containing mercury. Unsure of what to do, she makes a few calls. She is referred from Home Depot to the Poison Control Hotline to the Main Center for Disease Control to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The DEP tells her to call the Clean Harbor Environmental Services in Hampton.

Clean Harbor says they'll do it for $2,000. No, she can't use her own vacuum cleaner, because it would disperse the mercury.

For a gal trying to run a household containing four people, that kinda money is hard to find. Home insurance says they won't pay. She goes to the media and gets this picture taken. Without the arrow. Dunno how that got there.

The internet steps in to help as best they can. The blog sites are doin' the usual intellectual circle jerk, ranting about the HomeDepot CFL program and the pending disaster within our galactic cluster.

QuantumFog decides take a closer look. Here's a quick formula, but don't get bummed. I'll explain it.

Environmental studies at the UN says mercury (element Hg) evaporates at the rate of .056 mg/hour per square centimeter at a temperature of 68F. Mercury is liquid down to minus 38F.

Here's a video showing mercury vapors at room temperature; there is also a video of a guy who broke his thermometer to play with the contents.

The commonly used CFL these days contains about 5 milligrams of mercury. That means, according to the formula, the amount of mercury used in CFL's completely evaporates in about 6 minutes. Depending on the conditions of the spill.

Here's where it gets confusing. For me, anyways.

The CFL tube contains a trace amount of mercury in the form of a vapor. It is said the mercury is absorbed by the white phosphor powder over time, resulting in eventual failure of the bulb in 25,000 hours. Some authoritative sources say this powder is now dangerous, others make no mention of it.

Broken CFL's are supposed to be cleaned up by homeowners using plastic gloves, moistened paper towel and a ziploc bag. Out of some thirty agencies, only one made reference to carpeting. They say to bag the carpet and toss it. This is becoming an expensive light bulb.

State agencies and the Fed are dealing with this from the perspective of national policy. Their advice has to help all kinds of people and somehow find a good place for 620 million discarded CFL's every year.


The "danger" aspect is lost on me. I remember getting an ass whupin' for biting through a couple of fever thermometers when I was about two years old. A few years later, a kid brought a vial of mercury to school when I was in the fourth grade. The entire class played with it. Silver coins soaked in mercury came out shiney and slick. Beads of the stuff would roll around on the desk, we put our fingers in the vial to watch what happened. That was a long time ago and I seem to be doing just fine today. Even with mercury laced tooth fillings.

My take on all the fuss: ten minutes after the bulb breaks , treat it as normal trash. Vacuum it out of the carpet and go on with your life.

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