Hey Mr. Green,
Your response to the questions about the use of compact fluorescent bulbs was very helpful. (See the Nov. 23 blog.) But I have a concern about the breakage of fluorescents dissipating mercury inside the house. A couple of kids who have a tendency to play soccer in the living room does increase the odds of a broken light bulb. How would you balance that risk with the obvious benefits of the new bulbs. --Paul, University Heights, Ohio
Unless the kids are mischievous little soccer prodigies who aim for the lights and consistently hit them (something the lads back in my soccer-coaching days couldn’t accomplish in their wildest dreams), there’s no need to panic. However, if a bulb is busted, open the windows immediately, shut off the central heating or air system, and leave the room for 15 minutes to let mercury vapor dissipate, per the EPA’s advice. But DON’T VACUUM the bulb fragments, because a vacuum cleaner can retain the mercury instead of letting it evaporate to the outside. Finally, clean up carefully, following the EPA’s instructions at http://www.epa.gov/cfl/cflcleanup.html#before
If these precautions sound scary, it’s because the EPA is being extremely cautious and conservative. True, when a typical fluorescent bulb containing 5 milligrams of mercury breaks and is not cleaned up, there is a brief spike in airborne mercury anywhere from about 2 to 180 times the above the EPA’s recommendedhazard limit at one foot from the floor. But the concentration drops rapidly after that, and in less than 20 minutes is below or less than 25 percent higher the limit for most bulbs tested, except for one brand that remained 9 times higher, according to detailed research by Maine’s Department of Environmental Quality. At a 5-foot level--closer to the altitude of your soccer players--the initial spike is much lower, and drops below the maximum in less than 20 minutes, except for that one brand. Moreover, the EPA max is set for constant exposure over time, whereas the exposure from a broken bulb is merely short term. Also, my calculations based on kids’ lung capacity and weight, indicate that the amount of mercury from a bulb that a 50-pound kid could possibly inhale in a half hour, even at the highest level found, would still be way below the limit recommended by the EPA per unit of blood volume or body weight.
So why all the fuss about cleanup? Well, because the aformentioned limits are set for adults, not children, who are more susceptible to the effects of mercury. Secondly, we don’t really know what the impact of a brief spike might be. Hence, it seems wise to apply the precautionary principle, or “better safe than sorry” rather than wait for definitive parameters. The most effective way to inculcate this useful principle is to issue an extreme warning: “If you kick that damn ball around the living room and smash those bulbs, Mr. Green says you’ll get mercury poisoning.” Granted, fear of Mr. Green won’t equal fear of God as a deterrent, but if your presentation is sufficiently menacing, it will be effective. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-AL!