The Dangers of Compact Fluorescent Bulbs


Photo credit: flickr user Mulad

There’s a lot of debate about the danger of CFL’s due to the mercury they contain. But how much is it really? And what happens when the bulb breaks?

A recent study, reported in Home Energy Magazine, may surprise you. The study involved breaking new CFL bulbs from a variety of manufacturers and measuring how much mercury was released. To put it into context, they compared the amounts to eating a can of tuna fish – known to contain some mercury but also something most of us do regularly.

In order to really test for the worst case scenario, they tried to do things to make the conditions as bad as possible. Then they “sniffed” all the air with their measurements – the equivalent of sticking your nose right above the broken bulb and inhaling repeatedly as hard as possible. I mean, they really went out of their way to get the highest numbers possible! They noted:

 “In short, everything possible was done to elevate the air concentration of mercury in the room. Even with all this, the one-hour average air concentration of mercury was 21,262 ng/m3 at 1 foot above the floor and 16,814 ng/m3 at 5 feet above the floor, well below the OSHA PEL of 100,000 ng/m3″

What does this mean? Those numbers sound really high, right?

Well, not so fast. It turns out that “a 6 oz portion of albacore tuna is about 63,344 ng. A 2 oz portion would contain about 21,448 ng of methylmercury.” So eating a small portion of tuna exposes you to more mercury than a worst case scenario with the broken bulb.

I should note, there is a difference between eating and inhaling mercury, and since nobody snorts tuna fish, the results aren’t exactly comparable. So keep that in mind. However, based on this study, I feel a lot better that I’m not putting my health at risk by using CFLs.

The article is short and practical, and I highly recommend anybody still worried about the risks of CFLs to read it.

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2 thoughts on “The Dangers of Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

  1. As this article states, CFLs do contain small amounts of mercury. While it may not be high in quantity, it is still important for consumers to realize that they require special handling. The mercury vapor can be detrimental to handlers’ health—from those involved with handling new bulbs to people involved with storing, packaging and shipping used lamps. Mercury vapor, which can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, can cause neurological damage, and when it gets into water, it can enter the food chain through fish. Read more about the dangers of mercury exposure here: http://vaporlok.blogspot.com/2010/05/preventing-health-and-safety-hazards.html.

    If a bulb is broken or burns out, it should be properly cleaned up and recycled—it should not be disposed of in landfills. To reduce the risk for mercury vapor exposure, CFLs and fluorescent lamps should be safely handled, stored and transported to recycling facilities in a package that is proven to effectively contain hazardous mercury vapor. Find out more about how to minimize environmental risks and safely package CFLs here: http://vaporlok.blogspot.com/2010/05/layers-of-protection-packaging-used.html
    If a bulb breaks, consumers can learn more about clean-up procedures here: http://www.epa.gov/cfl/cflcleanup-detailed.html

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