Is mercury light or silver?

By Chelle Delaney: QCS Associate Publisher

Let there be (white) light.

Wal-Mart made headlines with its sale of compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy have backed up Wal-Mart.
At the Web site – www.energystar.gov/ – you’ll find that those two government agencies, the EPA and DOE, are plugging CFLs.
They aren’t just CFLs. They’re “Energy Star qualified lighting!”

As evidence, they say things like: “If every U.S. household changed its five highest-use fixtures (or the light bulbs in them) to Energy Star qualified lighting, we would save more than 800 billion kWh of energy and keep more than one trillion pounds of greenhouse gases out of our air.”

The air we live in also contains mercury vapor emissions – mainly from coal-burning electric power plants.
And mercury vapor is poisonous. Take the case of Brandy Bridges, who has become famous on the Web because of a story that was published in a Maine newspaper and was also cited on Fox News Web site. According to the story, she was installing some of the two dozen CFLs she’d bought to save money on her energy bill.

Trouble is that when she was installing one of those curlicue bulbs in her 7-year-old daughter’s bedroom, she dropped it. It broke into pieces on the shag carpet, the story reported.

Now Bridges knew there was something dangerous about cleaning up a broken fluorescent bulb, so she called Home Depot, where she’d bought her bulbs. They told her the bulbs contained mercury, that she shouldn’t vacuum the debris up, and that she should call the poison control hotline, according to the published account.

Here’s how the story continued, and it’s surely going to become an urban legend:
Poison control told her to call Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection. She did and DEP offered to send a specialist out to test her house.
He came and found safe levels (less than 300 ng/m3 (nanograms per cubic meter) downstairs. But on the carpet near where the bulb broke, the mercury vapor levels went up to 1,939 ng/m3. On a bag of toys, 556 ng/m3.

The specialist told Bridges not to try to clean up the bulb and mercury powder by herself. She contacted a professional, who estimated nearly $2,000 for the cleanup and told Bridges that everything above 300ng/m3 should be removed, including the carpeting.
Bridges’ insurance won’t cover the $2,000 cleaning or the replacement of her rug and other belongings.
But now, the official story has changed. She’s told she could easily clean up the bulbs by hand, that it would be unlikely that a person could contract mercury poisoning from the levels found in her daughter’s room.

Bridges believes that, to keep selling the compact fluorescent light bulbs, the state just keeps trying to cover up the danger.
And while the state of Maine is now pooh-poohing the danger, the federal government (once you look deeply) does have concerns.
Sure, the www.energystar.gov site makes little mention of “CFL disposal.” But it provides a 72 kb fact sheet to click on.
That’s where the bad news is. Here are some of the basics:

• Open a window and leave the room (restrict access) for at least 15 minutes.

• Remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner.

• Wear disposable rubber gloves, if available (do not use your bare hands).

• And be sure to wash your hands

It seems only time will determine if CPLs highly publicized advantages will ultimately outweigh the disadvantages.

Chelle Delaney is associate publisher of the Quay County Sun. She can be reached by calling 461-1952 or by emailing: chelle_delaney@link.freedom.com