Road to Hell Lit by Fluorescent Bulbs

Just Don’t Break Them or Throw Them Away

With the goal of saving energy, the government recently enacted legislation requiring all light bulbs that produce roughly between 40 watts and 150 watts of light be 30 percent more energy-efficient. The incandescent light bulbs we’ve used all our lives will be phased out starting with 100-watt bulbs in January 2012, and ending with 40-watt bulbs in January 2014.

Unfortunately, despite the good intentions of this legislation, energy savings are offset by the serious dangers associated with the more energy-efficient light bulb alternative—compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). The biggest problem with fluorescent bulbs is that they’re filled with mercury and when one breaks, mercury escapes as a vapor that can be inhaled and as a fine powder that can settle into carpets and anything else nearby. Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal that has been shown to cause (especially but not exclusively in children) emotional changes, cognitive problems, and learning disabilities, as well as damage to the brain, kidney, nervous system, and lungs.

Steve DenBaars, a professor of materials science at UCSB, says, “You don’t want to use CFLs for down lighting over kitchen counters. A champagne cork hits one, and you’ve just dusted your whole kitchen with mercury. The mercury issue is also why we need to look at new technologies that can beat CFLs in efficiency, like LED lighting, and do it in a safer manner.”

In one well-publicized case, Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine, discovered how dangerous mercury was when she broke a bulb in her daughter’s bedroom in 2007. Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection sealed the bedroom and declared it a hazardous area. At the site of the break, mercury levels were 60 times the level considered safe. On her daughter’s toys nearby, the mercury level measured twice the safe level. The cost of the cleanup was estimated at $2,000.

When a bulb breaks, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Hazardous Waste Minimization and Management Division recommends, you open all the windows; turn off all off heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems; and get people and pets out of the room for 15 minutes. Professional cleanup is strongly recommended. If you decide to do it yourself, you can’t use a vacuum as it spreads the mercury vapors. And you must always use protective gear so you’ll need to go out and buy coveralls, a dust mask, gloves and goggles.

Santa Barbara County has been gearing up to mitigate the environmental damage and has set up collection sites around the county for fluorescent bulb disposal. For the site nearest you, check the Santa Barbara County Waste Reduction Programs website.

Kathryn Simpson, of Santa Barbara, is the author of The Perimenopause and Menopause Workbook, The MS Solution, The Women's Guide to Thyroid Health, and Overcoming Adrenal Fatigue.

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