So you broke a CFL (compact fluorescent) light bulb. What next?
First- don’t panic. You might have seen an email or social media post that says something like this:
How much money does it take to screw in a compact fluorescent lightbulb? About $4.28 for the bulb and labor — unless you break the bulb. Then you, like Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine, could be looking at a cost of about $2,004.28, which doesn’t include the costs of frayed nerves and risks to health. Sound crazy? Perhaps no more than the stampede to ban the incandescent light bulb in favor of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) — a move already either adopted or being considered in California, Canada, the European Union and Australia. According to an April 12 article in The Ellsworth American, Bridges had the misfortune of breaking a CFL during installation in her daughter’s bedroom: It dropped and shattered on the carpeted floor. Aware that CFLs contain potentially hazardous substances, Bridges called her local Home Depot for advice. The store told her that the CFL contained mercury and that she should call the Poison Control hotline, which in turn directed her to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP sent a specialist to Bridges’ house to test for mercury contamination. The specialist found mercury levels in the bedroom in excess of six times the state’s “safe” level for mercury contamination of 300 billionths of a gram per cubic meter. The DEP specialist recommended that Bridges call an environmental cleanup firm, which reportedly gave her a “low-ball” estimate of $2,000 to clean up the room. The room then was sealed off with plastic and Bridges began “gathering finances” to pay for the $2,000 cleaning. Reportedly, her insurance company wouldn’t cover the cleanup costs because mercury is a pollutant.
Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? It’s more than a little overstated. As an example, remember that we have two giant warehouses full of light bulbs- many of them CFLs- and sometimes they break. If this rumor were true, we would have our very own EPA office and have spent millions on weekly cleanups- and according to this account, we would all likely be dead from mercury poisoning.
The truth about CFL cleanup is that although it is a little more involved than cleaning up a regular incandescent bulb, it’s not nearly this exhaustive or expensive. The EPA has cleanup guidelines here that you can follow to limit exposure and safely clean up the bulbs.
Another thing to consider is buying CFL bulbs that are armor coated or covered. They aren’t shatter proof, but certainly might offer a little more protection, especially in sensitive areas like day cares, schools and food prep areas.
One more thing: if you are afraid of mercury, keep in mind that typically, you are exposed to 10-20 times more mercury in your tuna sandwich than you are from a broken CFL. Food for thought!