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Web Feature | Environment

CFL Hazards

(Photo courtesy of dbgg1979 on flickr)Congress has mandated a switch from the incandescent light bulb we know and love to CFLs, or compact flourescent bulbs. Starting next year the old bulbs will be phased out and by 2014 they will no longer be on store shelves.

But while CFLs last years longer than traditional bulbs and use far less energy, they are just as fragile — and what many people don't realize is that breaking a CFL is definitely hazardous to your health.

The spiral glass tubing contains a small amount of mercury, but it is enough to be dangerous if the bulb is broken. In fact, it's against the law to put even an unbroken bulb in the trash in California. The Environmental Protection Agency warns consumers to be careful when handling a CFL. Always screw and unscrew the bulb by its base.

If you do break a CFL, the EPA has a three-page list of instructions to reduce exposure to mercury vapor. Here are the basics:

Before cleanup
• Have people and pets leave the room.
• Open a window or door to air out the room for 5-10 minutes
• Shut off the central forced air heating/air conditioning
• Get some stiff paper or cardboard, sticky tape (duct tape is best), damp paper towels or disposable wipes, a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag or container

Cleanup
• Carefully scoop up broken glass pieces and any powder using the stiff paper or cardboard
• Use the sticky tape to pick up small fragments or traces of powder
• Use damp paper towels or wipes to wipe the area clean — don't vacuum unless it's impossible to clean up all of the glass any other way, because vacuuming may spread the mercury powder or vapor. If you do have to vacuum you'll have to get rid of the bag immediately.
• Put everything you used for cleanup in the glass jar or sealable plastic container and close it tightly.

After cleanup
• Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a protected area until you can dispose of it properly. Don't leave any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
• Continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken for several hours, and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off.
• Take the sealed container to a hazardous waste disposal site.

By the way, California requires that all unbroken CFL bulbs be taken to a hazardous waste collection site. You can take unbroken bulbs to some stores like Home Depot, Orchard Supply Hardware, IKEA and Ace Hardware.

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