The Anatomy Of The "Dangerous Levels Of Mercury In CFLs" Myth

A woman in Maine broke a CFL and, rather than carefully cleaning the mess up herself, she called Home Depot. They told her not to vacuum, and directed her to call Poison Control. Poison Control directed her to the Maine DEP, who then sent an agent. The agent told her to call in a toxic waste team to give an estimate. Naturally, they told her it was going to be around $2,000. She heard that number, walled off the bedroom and alerted the local media.

Enter Fox News, where Steven “Junk Science” Milloy a well known, self-appointed “Junk Science expert” and global warming denier, writes an editorial extolling the dangers of CFLs to you, me, and our precious, precious babies.

TreeHugger addressed the “problem” of mercury in CFLs here, if you’d like to learn about it.

The fact is that unless you break the CFL, then live with your face right on the spot where it broke for the next few years, you’re probably going to die of something other than mercury poisoning. We know, life is so dangerous, isn’t it?

According to the original article quoted in the Fox News piece, the type of bulb the woman broke has about 5 milligrams of mercury, compared to say, 500 to 3,000 mg in a thermometer. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s spokesperson told the paper: “We encourage people not to panic if they break a lightbulb.” They’ve instructed the woman on how to properly clean up the mess, but she refuses, claiming conspiracy.

“I believe their first notion to have it cleaned professionally was correct. They told me to do it this way. Why would they change their stories when the papers got a hold of them?” she said. —MEGHANN MARCO

Fluorescent Bulb Break Creates Costly Hassle [The Ellsworth American]
Junk Science: Light Bulb Lunacy [Fox News]
The $ 2000 CFL Cleanup: Where Urban Myths Come From [TreeHugger]
Ask TreeHugger: Is Mercury from a Broken CFL Dangerous? [TreeHugger]

(Photo: Nick Gosling, The Ellsworth American)

Comments

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  1. mantari says:

    Thank you very much, Consumerist, for covering this. I read the chicken little story and knew they went all overboard with this. And the “junk science guy” seems to be promoting a lot of junk science himself.

  2. rugger_can says:
  3. Thank you for blowing yet another gaping hole in this b.s. myth.

    Junk science and hyperbole on Fox news? Say it a’int so!

  4. TinaB says:

    @rugger_can:

    So pretty much the worst that can happen to this lady is she cuts her finger cleaning up the broken bulb? Geez, some people…..

  5. gorckat says:

    @TinaB: No.

    The worst part is she probably broke the bulb before the electric savings balanced with the cost of the bulb :p

  6. rugger_can says:

    Yea, unless she’s storing large mounts of them and breaking them left right and center opening a door or a window for a bit and cleaning up the broken bits would be more then enough.

    You know, in the dark place of my soul.. for just a moment. I wish it was enough to kill her. You know for the betterment of the gene pool. But then again perhaps its not her fault.

    But that fox guy should know better, that’s just ignorant of him to act in such a fashion.

  7. bluegus32 says:

    Oh for the love of God. Life is way too complicated to concern myself with something like this.

    I don’t run with scissors. That’s about the extent of precautionary measures I take with my life. Stick with the basics, I always say.

    Thanks Consumerist for blowing this one apart.

  8. omgyouresexy says:

    I work in a lab on a college campus. I remember when I had a Mercury spill, we dusted the area with sulfur because the program director said it reacted with the sulfur, making it easier to clean up and less dangerous. I don’t know how this would help, nor would I recommend anyone doing this in their home, but I thought it was interesting.

  9. Lula Mae Broadway says:

    So just how should you clean up a broken thermometer?

  10. zentec says:

    Let’s keep it quiet that a typical dental filling has about 30 mg of mercury. Dental amalgam has always had it, and unless you request a plastic filling, it’s what you get put into your mouth where it’ll mix with food and saliva and be eaten or breathed as a sublimes.

    The uproar is politically motivated nonsense by the same people who want you to consume as much as possible in this world.

  11. humphrmi says:

    It took me a while to figure out what “CFL” means.

  12. mikyrok says:

    I bet she sues.. and gets a settlement..

    God bless America.

  13. Skiffer says:

    @zentec: The uproar is politically motivated nonsense by the same people who want you to consume as much as possible in this world.

    Actually, that’s one of “the same people’s” points – that the whole CFL movement is just to get us to consume more by switching to more expensive light bulbs that don’t last as long as they’re rated for (at least, in track lighting so I’ve heard).

    I’m pro-CFL, but think about it – it is a movement to distribute small levels of a hazardous substance throughout the nation. The consequences of breaking a single bulb are greatly exaggerated – but what about the final disposition of all CFLs as a group?

    Are people going to recycle them? No, most will probably just end up in landfills.

    The real lighting breakthrough is photonic LEDs. They’re currently only available in small lumen-ratings for accent lights, and extremely expensive (about 10-20x CFLs). But they’re the technology that stands best to replace incandescents (and CFLS) in 10-20 years time.

  14. sandwich_pants says:

    My Mom likes the current contemporary right wing perspective on lots of this science stuff, and is interested in topics such as looking into “junk science”. She, however, likes to tell me about the times when she would play with mercury from a broken thermometer or stuff like that when she was a child, and that she’s fine today.
    I share this as an illustration of just how absurdly hard this Fox news guy is apparently trying to come up with a contrary viewpoint to cause controversy for either ratings or political agenda.
    Also, it’s nice to hear that the mercury levels in the CFLs might be environmentally insignificant, though I do still think it better to have some sort of specific disposal scheme for them, such as through your local recycling/hazardous waste center. I imagine that ‘recycling’ (perhaps just safe disposal labeled as recycling) of these products will become a commonplace issue that is easy for the consumer to deal with as the popularity of these bulbs rises.

  15. Youthier says:

    I can’t imagine Home Depot being the first place I would call with a question. About anything.

  16. rg says:

    I’ll bet her next stop is McDonalds for some hot coffee, and then maybe lunch at Wendy’s for some finger-chili!

    Incidentally, as a child I broke a thermometer on the bathroom floor. My mom came in and found me playing with the mercury, pushing it around in the grout lines of the tile. I thought she was going to have a heart attack, and i was just having fun. I guess at least i didn’t eat it!

  17. The Bigger Unit says:

    @humphrmi: They’re talking about the Canadian Football League. Though I still can’t figure out what they have to do with mercury, breaking bulbs, and junk science…

  18. Brian Gee says:

    @gorckat: I’ve only paid a bunch for one bulb. I got a 3-way to replace the 50/100/150 bulb in my livingroom. It was around $10, but I know it will ultimately pay for itself.

    I replaced 15 bulbs with 2 Cosco 8-packs, at about $1 per bulb. At that price, I think the savings are realized in the first month, or maybe 2.

    I dropped the very last one trying to get the damn packaging open. Fortunately I was replacing an outdoor bulb, so the “massive” amounts of toxic mercury vapor won’t be in my house. Hah!

    Oh yeah. My point is that the bulbs really aren’t expensive if you just shop around a little bit. The multi packs at Cosco were such a great deal that I picked up an extra pack, and kept it in my car so I could replace bulbs at my friends’ houses, too, and get them started.

  19. rugger_can says:

    She’s worried about less then a milligram of mercury vapor, but she’s willing to pour bleach all over her head and wear large amounts of costume jewlery (which contains carcinogens often capable of percutaneous absorption). Somehow I don’t take her to be very credible.

    Nor am I going to trust someone who can balk at every single scientific and agricultural fact currently in recorded history about the effects of airborne pollutants, to know anything about the possible harmful effects of incendental exposure to low levels of mercurial vapor.

    But the sad part is, People will.

    CFL’s do infact less energy over the course of their use (from manufacture to expiration) then normal incandescent lights.

    @Skiffer:

    There is also photonic LEDs clusters which can be used in normal sockets. They use around 99% less energy then an incandescent light and will last beyond the failure point (normal use) of any CFL or incandescent. Although you are correct they produce less light and are more expensive upfront, however the fact that they a long long long time to break is in their favor.

    td:dr version : She’s stupid, Fox never will be a source of scientific fact. CFL’s = the good. Yes LED’s = The better.

  20. MoziCodo says:

    I think the bigger concern that’s being glossed over in the ignorance that one broken bulb is considered deadly is the waste disposal. The MSDS listed above clearly states that they need to be disposed of properly according to EPA standards. Of course, most consumers won’t do this. The negative impact of these bulbs ending up in landfills when compared to standard incandescent ones would be interesting to learn about.

  21. Brian Gee says:

    @missbrooke06: Yeah. That woman is an idiot. Her last quote proves it.

    – Home Depot said call poison control.

    – The Main Dept. of Env. Protection told her how to clean it up properly.

    So who “changed their stories after the papers got [involved]”? No one. Its 2 responses from 2 different sources: one is a corporation that wants to avoid a lawsuit, and the other is an agency that has a clue.

  22. Skiffer says:

    @rugger_can: Continuing on LEDs: I just bought a DLP HDTV from Samsung – they’re using LED bulbs instead of the usual high-intensity bulbs or whatever – more expensive upfront, but without the 2-3 year bulb replacements, and lower energy usage.

    Good article, even has an excel spreadsheet for cost breakdown:
    http://www.productdose.com/article.php?article_id=1142

  23. not_seth_brundle says:

    I wonder if she eats fish.

  24. Buran says:

    I read a story about this (was it this one? Haven’t clicked the link yet because I did read *a* followup) that included the phrase “denial of lighting choice”. Give me a BREAK!

  25. crayonshinobi says:

    Someone should warn this lady about the dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide too.

    I’ll bet dollars to donuts that it’s all over her house… I even heard that our government pipes it into our homes using a vast underground network.

    Seriously though, both the promoters and the detractors of the CFL movement are so full of junk science it’s not even worth listening to.

  26. Moosehawk says:

    Thank you very much for reporting this. I didn’t want to buy any CFL bulbs after reading the original story, but I may go back to home depot and stock up now.

  27. rugger_can says:

    @crayonshinobi:

    Classic

  28. Skiffer says:

    @crayonshinobi: Watch out for Diatomic Dioxides, too!

  29. jaredharley says:

    But is it safe to lick the powder from the glass, right? That’s what I like to do.

    As as an aside, I don’t use CFL bulbs in most of my lights because they’re “green” or they’ll save me money – they’re just so much cooler (temperature-wise) than regular bulbs. It’s nice to have a 75-watt light on next to me in the middle of the summer that doesn’t increase the amount of sweat rolling off of me. Man, I really need to invest in central air…

  30. The Walking Eye says:

    Don’t forget about the insidious Dihydrogen monoxide, which in it’s pure form will kill you quite readily.

    Seriously though, it’s a shame that the person with the loudest mouth gets the populace to believe them. It saddens me, as a scientist and engineer, that Milloy references science to back his claims. The public in general is very clueless when it comes to science and they’ll believe the first person who spouts science as their source, regardless of who the person is and what they’re actually referencing.

  31. mantari says:

    @Skiffer: Forgive me, I never took chemistry. Is that regular oxygen (O2)?

  32. PDQ says:

    Lula May Broadway asks:
    “So just how should you clean up a broken thermometer?”

    The only way to do it is to burn the house to the ground, put a concrete containment dome over the ashes and put yellow “Hazard” tape around the site for all eternity.

  33. The Walking Eye says:

    @The Walking Eye: *smacks self for repeating same joke as crayonshinobi*

  34. Dilaceratus says:

    PZ Myers at Pharyngula covers this in his post yesterday on Milloy, and his grossly dishonest statements on mercury.

    Myers also has some nice quotes and graphs from the EPA showing how the mercury used in a CFL is quite a bit less than the mercury released in the extra energy needed from a coal-fired power plant to run incandescents.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/05/compact_fluores

  35. timmus says:

    When I was in the military, we worked with garden variety mercury thermometers. Technically we were required to notify a hazmat crew if one of them broke. This was about 15 or 20 years ago, and we all thought it was a bit ridiculous and just cleaned it up ourselves. Knowing what I know now about waste and groundwater issues, though, I can see it being a real moral dilemma if I still worked there.

    But a CFL light bulb… that’s not even in the same league for crying out loud.

  36. nffcnnr says:

    i used to play with mercury when i was about 11 – 12 years old. i found about 1/2 fl oz in a small container in my stepdad’s tool box. i thought it was the coolest thing, the weight of it, the way it changed shapes, etc. i remember it getting under my fingernails and leaving silver residue on my fingertips. Here it is 25 years later, and i haven’t noticed any long-term effectsatsdzdgqpgaxsdauiadAadslklfajxle;sskdncandpvawesklowalpismehdmdjvgw

  37. Buran says:

    @mantari: “Dioxide” is two atoms of oxygen bonded together, thus the formula is “O2″. “Diatomic” just means “two atoms of”.

    Same thing.

  38. Jara says:

    To clarify a few things here:

    White LEDs are marvellous, awesome, and the Light of the Future, but they are not currently more efficient than CFLs. They probably will be, and are advancing incredibly quickly, but they ain’t there yet. They are also susceptible to gradual degradation of the phosphor and diode over time (they’ll get dimmer and shift spectrum, just like fluorescents do). So you’ll still want to replace LED lights from time to time.

    Mercury-containing CFLs still pollute the environment with less mercury than normal incandescents do, thanks to the mercury emissions of coal-fired generating plants. Much lower electricity consumption = much more mercury “saved” than goes into each bulb. Milloy is a dishonest tool in ignoring this fact (and in general)–to him, the much greater coal-plant mercury emissions are A-OK, but treehugging-CFL mercury is lethal. Nevermind the general benefits of reduced energy consumption regardless of the source. “Cleaner” CFLs are also available, if the mercury still bothers you.

  39. MeOhMy says:

    @The Nature Boy:

    They’re talking about the Canadian Football League. Though I still can’t figure out what they have to do with mercury, breaking bulbs, and junk science…

    Mercury is what makes the Grey Cup characteristically grey.

    My parents also can recount 1950s-era stories of playing with mercury. They emerged unscathed. That’s not to say that millions of these bulbs over time won’t themsleves be a hazard, but the pinhead’s worth in a CFL bulb isn’t cause for alarm if you break one.

    I’m waiting for the report on RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS IN SMOKE DETECTORS

  40. notallcompaniesarebad says:

    @Jara: “Mercury-containing CFLs still pollute the environment with less mercury than normal incandescents do, thanks to the mercury emissions of coal-fired generating plants.”
    While I agree that you must look at the overall impact of a given light source, I don’t think this line of reasoning is 100% accurate, at least currently. Coal plants are currently comprise a large fraction of the “baseload” in the electrical power system. They are on all the time due to their low-cost and high reliability. Peaking plants, those that are turned on when demand is high, are usually fueled by natural gas or oil (easier to turn on and off, but relatively high-cost, relative to coal). So if I’m thinking about this correctly, if everyone shifts to CFLs and we save a bunch of electricity, the gas plants will not run as often, but in all likelihood, the baseload will remain in the picture, coal burners and all.
    In order to reduce coal consumption by power producers, you either have to legislate it or cut power demand by a large large number.
    I’m not going to sit here and say CFLs are the end of the world, but I would like to understand the facts of the case (I don’t really care about the people screaming from both sides).

  41. latemodel says:

    The part about not using a vacuum cleaner should not be ignored. Elemental mercury is a neurotoxin, particularly in children. The vacuum cleaner discharge will aerosolize the mercury and permanently contaminate rooms or homes. I dont know how you clean it if you spill it on the carpet.

  42. Skeptic says:

    OT

    rg says: [reply to this comment]
    I’ll bet her next stop is McDonalds for some hot coffee,

    Bad example. The McDonalds 3d degree burn lawsuit was a example of the law working, not of litigious excess. If you wan’t to come up with an example of a frivolous lawsuit that isn’t the one to bring up.

    McDonalds knew customers were being burned. Handing flimsy cups of 180 degree coffee to customers in cars created foreseeable accidents and serious burns. The burned woman got 3d degree burns down to the bone and had to have skin grafts. She asked McDonalds for her direct costs for medical expenses of $10,000 (cheap, considering what hospitals cost). McDonalds refused. The Jury found McDonalds knew about other burn cases but that McDonalds elected to keep the coffee at an undrinkably hot temperature anyway. The Jury awarded the woman punitive damages of 3 days of McDonalds Coffee profits. This award was reduced on appeal.

  43. Jara says:

    @notallcompaniesarebad: Interesting question! Although I think we probably (?) agree the mercury isn’t the main issue, I do think CFLs would indeed have a significant impact on coal consumption, for three reasons:

    1. Lighting is still is a significant, if small, chunk of power consumption (I think…why the heck can’t I find good stats on this?!) Lowering overall lighting demand might therefore lower overall coal-fired generating capacity (or stall its growth).

    2. My dad says so (uh…yes, I just said that…I hang my head in shame, but I move forward nonetheless). He’s retired from 30+ years in the power industry, and says that coal plants can respond fairly quickly, going from minimum to maximum load in about an hour. In my state, nuclear is used to provide the baseload, while coal is used to regulate the bulk of the changing demand, with gas or oil handling the most rapid fluctuations.

    3. Given that lighting should be a pretty stable and predictable demand, wouldn’t the reduced demand be accomodated by throttling back “flexible baseload” coal, rather than gas or oil peaking units? Since those units aren’t being run because we have no other way to get the electricty, but rather because we have no other way to meet very-short-term spikes in demand?

    So I think it’s possible that if everyone switched to fluorescent tomorrow, the utility might indeed be burning less coal almost immediately. But neither I nor Dad can swear to that, and I’d be really interested to learn more about both the long-term generation and emissions effects of conservation like this. Probably some papers out there if I’m not too lazy to look…

  44. Buran says:

    @Skeptic: That doesn’t excuse being stupid enough to handle something hot like that in a CAR.

    She basically sued for not being stopped from doing something stupid.

  45. Skiffer says:

    @Jara & @notallcompaniesarebad:

    Good posts, to elaborate:

    Coal plants are relatively quick to start up, but the majority of them still serve as baseload plants. You will find more of the operating “peaking plants” are natural gas.

    It’s also hard to say whether CFL energy reduction will manifest itself in baseload or peaking savings. Peaking is worst in the summer afternoons due to A/C usage (and general daytime activities). I would expect lighting usage to have more baseload and less peaking demand.

    But, let me leave you with a few of my favorite personal sayings:

    “If you don’t want to generate any waste, then stop breathing” – We can’t eliminate it all.

    “Even animals poop in the corner” – Stewardship isn’t about eliminating waste (reducing it is part of it, sure), it’s about long-term disposition. If you concentrate waste generation at one source, it’s easier to control. I would rather have 10x the waste generated at 1 source than 1x the waste distributed among 10 sources.

    “Transuranics may be radioactive for a thousand years, but mercury and arsenic are forever” – Coal plants emit more radiation to the atmosphere (naturally occurring uranium in the burned coal) than nuclear plants (whose waste is contained). And all the other nasty heavy metals from coal plants, yummy…Oh, and then there’s that whole carbon dioxide thing…

    “The politically correct term for global warming is Summer.”

  46. Kat says:

    Oh please. I dropped an old mercury thermometer on carpeting once and it broke. Poison control told me to leave the window open overnight, and to run a penny along the carpet because mercury is attracted to pennies.

  47. kerry says:

    @not_seth_brundle: I was wondering the same thing. How does the mercury level in the air after breaking this bulb compare to a night of sushi?

    I’d also like to know about what will happen when 99.9999% of these bulbs wind up in landfills. I have hazardous waste pickup where I work, and am in fact charge of it for my lab, and my ward does a hazardous waste drop-off day a few times a year, but I don’t think most people have or know about the resources at their disposal for getting rid of toxic waste.

    When I was in college a friend of mine pulled out a little box of pins in her sewing kit, and in the box was a blob of mercury she’d been carrying around and playing with since childhood. I wonder if she’s okay now.

  48. Jara says:

    I agree, Skiffer. Nuclear is important and inevitable, and if we get our act together in handling the waste and the regulation, a good idea. Though of course, even nuclear isn’t renewable.

  49. CumaeanSibyl says:

    @zentec: My husband had an amalgam filling that caused him a week or so of toothache every time the weather changed. Funny thing about mercury, it expands and contracts with the temperature… I think that’s one of the reasons that dentists are changing over to the new type of filling (that, and they’re actually tooth-colored).

  50. JTres says:

    I have a bunch of CFL bulbs and love them.

    That said, how much you want to bet if any other product not endorsed by environmentalists contained “only” 5mg of mercury and was easily breakable that we’d be hearing howls of protest about their possible dangers. The greens are downplaying this because it is a product they like.

  51. notallcompaniesarebad says:

    @JTres: “That said, how much you want to bet if any other product not endorsed by environmentalists contained “only” 5mg of mercury and was easily breakable that we’d be hearing howls of protest about their possible dangers. The greens are downplaying this because it is a product they like.”

    I dislike hypocrisy as much as the next guy (and I think “greens” are often very wrong about things), but I don’t think it’s a problem to downplay the issue because it’s a product you like. Doctors recommend chemo for cancer even though they probably would try to keep its side effects from occurring in a healthy person. It’s all about tradeoffs.

  52. JTres says:

    My big problem here is not the hypocrisy (which is obvious as for example Greenpeace is giving computer companies a heard time for having any mercury in their products), but the scale we may be facing in the future. Green groups are making a major push to get these in every home. These bulbs can last years. Five years from now, when hopefully LED bulbs will be the norm and everyone has forgotten that mercury, these CFL are going to start dying and get tossed all at once. That little bit of mercury will become a huge problem!

  53. notallcompaniesarebad says:

    @JTres: “My big problem here is not the hypocrisy (which is obvious as for example Greenpeace is giving computer companies a heard time for having any mercury in their products), but the scale we may be facing in the future.”

    Point taken. As for Greenpeace, I would hope that part of their complaint is that there are products that accomplish the same good but with fewer pollutants at something approximating the same cost (perhaps a bit more). I would hope.

  54. AcilletaM says:

    I swear Milloy is a commenter here. He chimed in when we started attacking ConAgra and farmers.

  55. Jim Kosmicki says:

    junkscience.com is an example of truth in advertising — but people always get it backwards — they are the ones spreading the junkscience, not reporting on it.

    this website is run by FOXnews and is just as biased, but more problematic because they pretend to be scientific. My students have a very hard time determining the bias and problems with the reports from this site, and I’m teaching them how to critically analyze material. Typical web-surfers really don’t stand a chance.

  56. Her Grace says:

    This was a really interesting discussion to read. Thanks, fellow commenters.

    As for the lady in the story, I just hope she doesn’t breed and pass on that sort of idiocy.

  57. Dilaceratus says:

    Snopes gave the $2000 cleanup its own Urban Legend:

    http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/cfl.asp

    which must be a record time, even for Milloy and FOX News.

    Of course the cretins at the Washington Times then ran the Milloy piece the next day:

    http://washingtontimes.com/commentary/20070502-092153-8028

    You have to fight back against bad, dishonest science and bad, dishonest journalism, especially when it’s this obviously politically motivated.

  58. notallcompaniesarebad says:

    The real problem here is the state procedure for cleaning it up. Face it: if what the state says is true, these things are bad news. My gut tells me the Maine DEP is overreacting. However, if they are telling the truth and one of those things is potentially dangerous, I think that needs to get out. Remember, you don’t have a coal power plant in your bedroom.
    Not automatically against CFLs (I think in the end they are great, actually) but someone needs to get the DEP and EPA on the same page.

  59. readerator says:

    The real story is the many, many thousands of bulbs that will end up in landfills around the country. That adds up to a LOT of mercury. I don’t know many people who are aware that CFL bulbs need to be treated like hazardous waste when they burn out. Remember when AA batteries contained mercury? How many people took their dead batteries to HHW sites?

  60. Dilaceratus says:

    Citing the 03 May Washington Times Milloy article, here comes Rush Limbaugh, to repeat this thoroughly debunked story on Friday.

    Transcript:

    http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_050407/content