Exposing CFL Bulb Fables When The Bulb Breaks


Originally Published in the Guelph Mercury - January 2009

This winter, I realized I had a received one big snow job. However, this time it was not at the hands of my older brother but from all those "do-gooder" environmentalists.

See, I bought into the whole compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) sell job. Our new house had a bunch of these energy efficient bulbs when we moved in and I naively went out and bought some more.

I had felt good about putting these new CFL bulbs up around the house and replacing the old, inefficient incandescent light bulbs. Annoyances like the fact that the light wasn't as bright as the old ones or that they take a half second longer to turn on were sacrifices I was willing to make for the environment.

Doing so gave me that enviro-conscious, self-righteous swagger you get when you feel you are ahead of the unenlightened masses. You know, those non-believers, who have yet to fully appreciate how changing a light bulb can save the planet.

That is why I had resistance to ditching my CFL bulbs when my fear-mongering mother-in-law called. She explained to my wife these new light bulbs emit radiation and contain mercury.

I was able to convince my wife that her mom was overreacting about the radiation risk and I reassured her that it was important that we did our part in being green.

Later that night, I watched a story on the radiation risk from CFL bulbs on CBC's The National.

The story confirmed the radiation risk, but only if you were in close proximity -- 30 centimetres -- to the fluorescent bulb.

What I found most surprising was the woman profiled in the story, who when told of the potential danger of CFL bulbs, decided to keep them anyway. According to her, the new bulb's environmental benefit was of greater importance than a British study's public health warning.

I must admit, my view was similar to hers, but to cover my bets and have peace with my mother-in-law, I decided to replace a couple of the CFL bulbs in reading lamps.

Sure enough, while replacing the green-conscious bulbs, one fell from my hand and broke onto the floor.

After sweeping it up and throwing it in the garbage, my wife said I should check the Internet for cleanup procedures.

Now I knew these bulbs contained a small amount of mercury, so I thought I might have to wipe the floor, too -- but I had no idea that I just opened up a Pandora's Box.

The cleaning procedures for these "toxic spills" vary greatly, from using a cloth to just short of having environmental cleanup crews come to your home.

On the one end is our provincial government's Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure, which gives us these simple, no worry instructions: "Sweep up all of the glass fragments and phosphor powder -- don't vacuum and place in a plastic bag. Wipe the area with a damp paper towel to pick up stray shards of glass or fine particles, and place the used towel in the plastic bag as well."

The Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S., however, suggests a much more rigorous cleanup.

According to its website -- and I'm paraphrasing -- after I broke the CFL bulb, I should have had everyone vacate the area, ventilated the room for a minimum of 15 minutes, shut off the ventilation system, scooped contents with cardboard and placed them in a glass jar, used sticky tape to pick up remaining fragments and powder, and wipe the area clean with a damp cloth that is disposed in the glass jar.

I wasn't supposed to use a vacuum -- or a broom for that matter -- and any fabric such as clothing or bedding that came in contact with the broken glass or powder should not be washed, but thrown out.

Wow, what a great product. I'm so glad I brought these ticking time bombs into my family's home.

Maybe I should see if I can run my vacuum cleaner on plutonium so I can save any strain on the energy grid.

Sarcasm aside, I know this was just one bulb that broke, but I think growing up my brother and I must have broken at least a couple of dozen old incandescent bulbs inside our parents' house.

Now I have two little active boys in my house and there is no way I am leaving these toxic-cleanup-sites-in-waiting around for them to discover.

So I am off to the hardware store to buy a bunch of incandescent bulbs before our misguided government bans them.

First though, I will have to make sure that I dispose of the made-in-China "mercury bulbs" properly, too. Wouldn't want to do any further damage to the environment outside my home.

If you want to reduce the problem of toxic mercury in the air then you should look to eliminate it at its source without bringing the problem into people's homes.

Dropping that CFL bulb hopefully won't cause any ill effects to my family, but it sure has got the snow out of my eyes.

I realized I had let my desire to be green and noble get in the way of seeing this snow job for what it is and not using my common sense.

Gregory Cawsey