Mark Frauenfelder at 12:17 pm Wed, Dec 19, 2007
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The House of Commons Commission issued this 10-step guide for dealing with broken light bulbs in Parliament.
Are the bulbs filled with anthrax spores?
UPDATE: The US EPA's 3-step procedure for dealing with broken CFLs makes more sense to me.
Link (Via Nothing To Do With Arbroath)
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder.
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Also, Haroun is right — the EPA list actually has MORE steps, they just number them differently.
Yes, they are in fact filled with deadly anthrax spores.
I doubt these bulbs prove themselves over time. (a)They are more expensive for the consumer.
(b)We have to build a complex recycling network.
(c)They are more complex to manafacture.
My favorite book this week is available free from
One of the points of the book is the disproportionate fear and excessive response of authoritarian followers to perceived threats, an issue which is currently involved in allowing the US government to create a fascist system within the United States. Everyone should read this book. Seriously, I mean it.
Does anyone remember the 50s? My brother and I disassembled mercury hearing aid batteries, and collected and played with the mercury. You can easily plate a penny to look like it’s silver. It does funny stuff when you hit it with a hammer.
We rode tricycles that, heaven forbid, could tip over, and had, heaven forbid, sharp edges. We had scissors with points. My wife, at 11 or so, rode the city bus alone into Philadelphia to visit her grandmother (child abduction figures are, believe it or not, no higher today than they were then—I bet you didn’t know that).
Need I say it, all of us are still alive.
All the time I run into people who are afraid of their shadows. I pity them.
CFL sucks. Solid state LED ftw.
This is my first post (waves hello). I wish fluorescent tubes could be outlawed on strictly aesthetic grounds. I agree about LED lights, but unfortunately those don’t seem to be in the immediately foreseeable future as a practical, cost-effective alternative to incandescents.
They’re filled with mercury. A broken CFL is enough to render a scene a toxic hazard, requiring professional cleanup.
Might want to have researched this one before ridiculing the gov.
No, they’re filled with mercury.
No, they’re not filled with anthrax spores. The new compact fluorescent bulbs have trace amounts of mercury in them. Along with the lengthy clean up process, they should also be recycled and not tossed in any old trash can.
While these light bulbs are supposed to last longer, they also make disposal more difficult.
How about the CIA two steps?
1- Clear the area.
2- Remove all evidence (especially videos) that a light bulb has been broken.
Step 11: make her open the box… and that’s the way you do it!
The ten steps outlined in the guide sheet issued by the UK government all seem prudent and practical, because fluorescent light bulbs contain a small amount of mercury vapor.
Yes, they have Mercury.
No, they don’t require professional clean-up crew if you break one.
Here’s what Snopes.com has to say about CFL Mercury and issue of their toxicity…
1) CFLs contain mercury, a dangerous substance: True.
2) While mercury stays safely contained in intact CFLs, it escapes from broken CFLs into the immediate surroundings: True.
3) The amount of mercury contained in one CFL bulb poses a grave danger to a home’s inhabitants: False.
4) An environmental clean-up crew needs be called in to deal with the mercury dispersed by one broken CFL bulb: False
Yes, they have mercury in them. But certainly not enough to go batshit crazy on the cleanup. The steps are not unreasonable, but do lean to the overly cautious.
To put this into perspective, a CFL generally contains about 1/10th as much mercury as a mercury based medical thermometer.
If you were to perpetually break and then huff the contents of CFLs, it would be a major problem. However, the primary risk of cleaning up a single broken lamp is cuts from the broken glass, not mercury poisoning.
There have been some completely ridiculous and overblown stories in the US about the “hazards of CFL” that claim that you need to seal the room and call in professionals. Funny, though, as most of the stories are initially published in rabid fundamentalist conservative rags. Coincidence? Me-thinks not.
Actually those are pretty much the directions on the side of my case of CFLs. A little more stringent but pretty much the same. :)
Sheesh, it’s like people have never heard of ISO 9000 audits and overly detailed documentation of standard operating procedures before . . . this shit’s been going on for decades now.
Is this a little over-cautious? Yes. Are government agency policies and procedures always written to be over-cautious, especially when it comes to issues related to employee health? Also yes.
Where is the part about reporting yourself to the local authorities for suspicous behavior.
Further There was not one single “How many..” jokes in the comments. So I guess it is up to me.
How many Parlimantarians does it take to change a light bulb?
Just one but since he is in the house of lords he has one of the the members from the house of commons do it.
Ahhh, the Nanny State: promoting a total lack individual responsibility, then wondering why nothing is ever anyone’s fault…
Ireland is banning incandescent bulbs from January 2009. Apparently, Ireland is the first country to do such a thing. Oh yeah, the Green Party are in a coalition government here. But before the Green’s government involvement Ireland adopted the WEEE Directive into law nearly two years ago.
What gets me about these ten steps is that it includes neither the removal of the bulb-base from the socket nor the insertion of a replacement bulb. ^_^
Jeez. Materials used in throwing out supposedly ecological light bulb:
1. Sturdy cardboard box.
6. Stiff card.
Plus you then have to get specialist disposal.
Materials used in disposing of old style filament bulb:
1. Bit of old newspaper. Chuck in bin.
Environmentally friendly? Not looking that way.
Ha, that’s a very good point, #13. Environmentally safer, my behind!!
This needs to be combined with the warnings for Happy Fun Ball.
Do CFLs contain mercury?
No, No. Those are the instructions for how to handle the Labour party.
As it’s my job to handle changing these things, the list is not that out of the ordinary aside from all the box requirements. Just throw it in the trash already. (If you have a reliable recycler that doesn’t just crush them and throw them in the dump anyway, I have a lot of T8 tubes to dispose of as well)
They do break from time to time. If the lamp is overhead, you just might want to be wearing eye protection. If you cut yourself, the phosphor coating isn’t something you want in a cut. Neither is the phosphor dust something you should be breathing, hence the damp cloth to wipe up the residue. The mercury in fluorescent tubes is really the least of your worries though as a cumulative environmental poison in the long run it probably should be a concern.
Does the Govt have a similar chart instructing you on how to send data to someone else?
Oh yeah, and forgot the mask.
1. Download everything.
@17 – All fluorescent tubes contain varying quantities of mercury. Generally the larger the tube and the older the ballast technology (magnetic ballasts) the more mercury in the tube. The electric discharge through the mercury vapor produces ultra-violet light which then impinges on the phosphor coat to produce visible light.
CFL’s contain the least amount of mercury.
Mattharvest, Gitaiba, Groovehouse: I feel like you guys should get some kind of prize for simultaneously coming up with the same answer.
@Dodds, that’s only if one breaks.
If they don’t break, one box and some tape will hold several years worth of worn-out bulbs.
Anyway, you’d probably want to wipe up an area with broken glass on it with a damp cloth or paper towel anyway.
Do you eat fish? Do you drive? Do you walk near traffic? do you live in a city?
lets get a grip on the relative risks here.
I’d say neilbe wins this round.
The amount of mercury contained in a CFL is significantly less than the amount of mercury that would be released into the atmosphere by the coal burned to create the additional energy required by an incandescent bulb. Using CFLs creates a net environmental mercury reduction.
I stopped buying CFL bulbs because I broke too many -at several dollars a pop, they all seemed to either break or burn out in a couple of days. Do these cautions apply to old-style fluorescent tubes? Most of my home is lit with four-foot tubes, but I have yet to break one of those.
It doesn’t seem like this rush to CFL is well thought out. While the risk of breaking a single bulb is minimal, what happens when millions of CFL bulbs are broken during collection and disposal? They don’t last forever. At least with incandescent bulbs, only nitrogen or argon is released when they break.
It’s one thing to dismiss the amount of elemental mercury in a CFL by saying that it’s “the size of a period at the end of a sentence,” and another to actually quantify it.
First let’s set a baseline: one tenth of one mg of mercury vapor spread across a cubic meter is enough to cause puking, shaking hands, drooling, memory loss, and weakness. And that’s what happens to adults. With kids the effects can be permanent. Oh yeah and it’s mutagenic.
One CF light bulb contains about 5 mg of mercury vapor – 50 times the dose that will cause the effects mentioned above.
Yes, this is only a cause for concern when a bulb breaks (not just burns out), but that does happen.
Finally, the big advantage of CFLs is that they consume less energy for the amount of light produced. The “waste” from incandescent lights is in the form of heat. Well, if you’re paying to heat your home anyway, then it’s not really waste at all.
CFLs make sense in many situations â€“ small outdoor areas, public rooms, lights that are left on for very long periods â€“ but not in all situations. Sometimes incandescent make more sense.
As crunchbird @ 10 explained it, these rules are to protect the government from liability as well as the person changing the bulb: if there aren’t cases of someone smashing the bulbs and huffing the mercury, I’d be surprised. It’s hard to tell from the original post if it’s a slap at the excessive detail of the warning(s) or the fact that they’re necessary. And the fact that there is a risk to human health, beyond broken glass, isn’t mentioned until the commenters chime in.
Yes the list may be a bit over the top, but at least they are making an effort at informing the public of the risks. I, for example, have 8 of these in my home right now, so how many of these are in my town? I doubt that every homeowner in my town knows about small amount of mercury they contain. I’d like to think that most people will dispose of these properly, but most likey they will not.
Once my bulbs begin to expire, I will keep them with my paint cans and take them to my town’s hazardous waste disposal day. BTW, the same goes for data projector and projection TV bulbs.
My mom told me she and many other kids used to play with mercury. Hell, some folk remedies in Latin America require ingestion of mercury.
While it is a good idea we don’t play with it anymore and it is not freely available, evacuating a school building because someone broke a mercury thermometer is way overkill. It’s a tempest in teapot, signifying nothing.
Citation definitely needed. I couldn’t find any references that showed problems resulting from short-duration mercury exposure around 0.1mg/m^3, and certainly nothing as drastic as the symptoms you listed.
On the contrary, Here’s what I found. The website of the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (part of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services) has an official Toxicological Profile for Mercury.
Reading through it (ok, skimming and searching it – it’s over 600 pages), I found the following bit on p 44:
“Very little information was located regarding respiratory effects associated with intermediate-duration exposures. However, two studies noted chronic coughs in subjects exposed to metallic mercury vapor for several weeks (Schwartz et al. 1992; Sexton et al. 1976). No respiratory symptoms and no abnormalities were noted upon examining chest X-rays or the results of pulmonary function tests in a group of chloralkali workers exposed for an average of >6 years to levels of mercury ranging from near 0 to 0.27 mg/m3 (85% of the group was exposed at or below 0.1 mg/m3) (Smith et al. 1970).”
So, this leaves 15% of the workers being exposed to >0.1mg/m^3 for >6 years, with ‘no respiratory symptoms.’ Sounds quite a bit different than ‘puking, shaking hands, drooling, memory loss, and weakness.’
Looks like the threshhold is a bit higher than 0.1mg/m^3.
Oh yeah, also found this.
2004 NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection study of mercury release from broken tubular fluorescent bulbs find that only 17-40% of the mercury in the bulbs is released to the air in the first two weeks after breakage, with 1/3 of the total mercury release happening in the first 8 hours.
So, it’s not like breaking a CFL with 5mg of mercury in it will suddenly produce a cloud of mercury that’s 5mg/m^3.
Again, I’m not saying that there isn’t a problem at all here, just trying to put some more real numbers into the discussion rather than alarmist rhetoric.
Offices have used florescent tubes for decades, and have time-tested procedure for dealing with old and burned out units:
Remove tube from fixture.
Carry to dumpster.
Drop tube in dumpster.
I’m surprised that the concern trolls that have come of the woodwork to freak over CFLs haven’t mentioned that.
A couple of things. First, the British list lays out the procedures that, if the American EPA protocol was more exacting about list all them, would make the EPA list just as long. Second, why breathe more mercury than you need to? Put on a mask, fer chrissakes. Lastly, the New Yorker has a rather interesting article on the use of to do lists being developed for ICU’s & the amazing effect on infection, length of stay, & mortality. Sometimes a thorough protocol can save a huge amount of trouble.
@chris fedde: well, yeah. but i do all of those things carefully. (though more because of the bones than anything else when it comes to fish.)
Couple of quick additions to the endless commentary (note that I am not an expert on the subject).
- Many (not all) incandescent light bulb contain a small amount of lead at their base (that’s the little dot of gray at the base of the bulb). However, AFAIK there’s really no other hazards in these things that I know of. They are safer than CFLs from that standpoint.
- Our city requires that florescent tubes be disposed of at the local hazardous waste facility. Your city likely has similar rules.
- LED bulbs are certainly going to be the future. They consume little power and don’t have really any hazardous properties that I know of. However, they are still too pricey now for the general public.
- There is a net-net environmental benefit to using CFLs, overall. Coal-burning power plants produce mercury (that’s why it’s in the fish). Doesn’t make you feel much better if one broke in your house, though.
crap, I wanted to be the one who said they had mercury in them.
I’m not surprised. The NHS has a poster on how to have a proper poo. I came across it on another blog and, alas, I am unable to find it now. At least they’re worried about the public health – I guess.
#37: Scoff if you wish, but those who follow NHS advice can at least claim they aren’t full of sh*t.
I’m just now checking back on this thread and noticed that a couple of people have asked for citations.
One very good place to go for toxicity information is the EPA’s IRIS database. Here’s the listing for elemental mercury: http://www.epa.gov/iris/subst/0370.htm, about 23 pp with tons of citations. They estimate the concentration that one can encounter every day without ill effect at 0.0003 mg/m^3.
If you’re looking for more, a quick search on Wikipedia pointed me to several papers on the health effects of mercury vapor exposure:
1. Case control studies have shown effects such as tremors, impaired cognitive skills, and sleep disturbance in workers with chronic exposure to mercury vapour even at low concentrations in the range 0.7â€“42 Î¼g/m3.
^ Ngim CH, Foo SC, Boey KW, and Keyaratnam J (1992). “Chronic neurobehavioral effects of elemental mercury in dentists”. British Journal of Industrial Medicine 49: 782-790.
^ Liang YX, Sun RK, Chen ZQ, and Li LH. “Psychological effects of low exposure to mercury vapor: Application of computer-administered neurobehavioral evaluation system”. Environmental Research 60: 320-327.
2. A study has shown that acute exposure (4-8 hours) to calculated elemental mercury levels of 1.1 to 44 mg/m3 resulted in chest pain, dyspnea, cough, hemoptysis, impairment of pulmonary function, and evidence of interstitial pneumonitis.
^ McFarland, RB and H. Reigel. J Occup Med. 1978 Aug;20(8):532-4.
3. Acute exposure to mercury vapor has been shown to result in profound central nervous system effects, including psychotic reactions characterized by delirium, hallucinations, and suicidal tendency. Occupational exposure has resulted in broad-ranging functional disturbance, including erethism, irritability, excitability, excessive shyness, and insomnia. With continuing exposure, a fine tremor develops and may escalate to violent muscular spasms. Tremor initially involves the hands and later spreads to the eyelids, lips, and tongue.
^ WHO (1976) Environmental Health Criteria 1: Mercury, Geneva, World Health Organization, 131 pp.
^ WHO. Inorganic mercury. Environmental Health Criteria 118. World Health Organization, Geneva, 1991.
Being a bit of a dork, I’ve actually broken apart the base of CFLs — not the tube, the white base. It’s got a little circuit board and several electronic components in there. How much energy do those things take to make? What other harmful chemicals are present? What happens to them when they’re trashed? I’m not really convinced they’re better for the environment than a hunk of glass, wire, and foil.