Sustainable Living & Sustainable Lifestyle

A simple guide of what to do if a CFL bulb breaks to stay safe.

Cleaning Up a Broken CFL Bulb to Limit Mercury Exposure

In our recent article discussing the safety of CFL bulbs, we uncovered that while CFL bulbs are safe to use in your home, there are some precautions that need to be taken.   To recap, CFL bulbs contain a small amount of mercury which is a chemical dangerous to people.   To better understand the risk factors, a CFL bulb contains less than 1% of mercury that was once found in common household thermometers.  We should also point out that the energy efficiency gains from CFL bulbs lower the total amount of mercury in the environment by reducing output from coal fired power plants.  While it is still recommended to utilize CFL bulbs we want to ensure you and your family understands what to do if a CFL bulb breaks in your home.

Broken CFL cleanup processThere are a few basic precautionary steps that can be taken to avoid breaking a CFL bulb and prevention removes any hazard you may face.  Utilizing a towel or drop cloth in the surrounding the area when changing the light bulb may stop the glass from breaking if dropped or at least contain mess.  There are also bulbs with glass or plastic coverings, looking more like incandescent lights, which adds durability if dropped.  There are also some common sense steps to use to avoid contamination such as not using the bulbs in table lamps or areas exposed to tiny hands and making sure the bulbs properly fit.

Accidents will happen regardless of all the prevention methods used, so empower yourself with the knowledge of what to do when a CFL breaks.  The following cleanup process was found on the EPA’s website and augmented by information we found from Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection.  It is important that your follow these instructions as close as possible in order to minimize exposure to mercury vapor.

How to clean up a broken CFL bulb

  • Have all people and pets leave the room, making sure they don’t walk through the mess on the way out.
  • Open a window or door to ventilate the area for at least 15 minutes; do not try to clean the mess before this time if possible.
  • Turn off all fans, air conditioners and heaters to ensure you don’t spread the vapors through the rest of your home or office.
  • Wear appropriate protective gear such as gloves, dust mask and safety glasses, this may sound like overkill but the name of the game is safety.
  • Remove the larger pieces and place them in a sealed container such as a glass jar or sealable plastic bag.
  • Collect all the smaller pieces and dust particles. There are numerous ways this can be accomplished.  One is to use a commercial mercury spill kit, these are available at hardware stores and online retailers.  Assuming one of these are not readily available you can used a stiff piece of paper or cardboard, a damp towel for hard surfaces and basic duct tape to pick up the fine particles.  Place all this material in a sealed bag or jar.  Do not use a vacuum unless absolutely necessary, this may spread vapor even more.
  • Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of properly.  Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
  • If you can, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.  This will help ensure you have cleared the room of all remaining vapors.

While CFL bulbs are energy efficient alternatives to incandescent bulbs and normally considered safe for your home, being prepared for a broken bulb is important.  Keep your electric bill low and your family safe by following the simple cleanup steps above or by doing your best to prevent breaking a bulb in the first place.

Image: digitalart

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