Invisible Risks: Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

by Diana Schultz

Having discovered the Building Biology Institute (known at the time as International Institute for Bau-Biology & Ecology) three weeks prior to its 2008 Conference in Tennessee, I was as fresh as you could get to the concepts of Building Biology.  And be “green” I had just purchased the latest “thing, ”more than forty squiggly compact fluorescent light bulbs and replaced all the regular bulbs in my house.  I was so looking forward to sharing my contribution to a healthy environment at the conference! Needless to say, as I listened to the presentations about the health hazards of CFLs, I was shocked!

Since that eye-opening conference in 2008, and completing over four hundred hours of coursework to become a Bau-Biologie Environmental Consultant (BBEC), I have learned a great deal more about lighting choices, and share this information with my clients and workshop guests to this day.

Known hazard #1: Mercury

Compact fluorescent bulbs contain vaporized elemental mercury, (Hg), which will immediately spread through the air if the bulb breaks.  If you breathe the vapors, Mercury enters the lungs and can enter the brain directly through the nasal cavity.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states that NO amount of Mercury exposure is safe.  The EPA Reference Concentration (RfC) is set at 300 nanograms of vaporized elemental Mercury; exposure levels above that become toxic.

So how much is actually in one bulb? The State of Maine asked that same question. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection conducted a study where they broke a variety of CFL bulbs and measured the amounts of Mercury that were emitted into the air.  They measured at five feet off the floor and one foot off the floor, to simulate adult and child breathing spaces. They found an average of 50,000 nanograms of vaporized Mercury released from a single bulb.

The EPA website lists directions of what to do if a bulb breaks in your home. First thing to do is LEAVE.  Do not breathe the vapors.  Take the children and pets with you on the way out.  Turn off any air conditioner or forced air heating to prevent spreading the contamination.  Open the windows and ventilate the space for at least 15 to 30 minutes.

To clean up the spill use two pieces of cardboard to scoop up the broken pieces and put them in a glass jar with a gum seal, such as a spaghetti sauce jar. The Maine study showed that zipper plastic bags leak the Mercury. You can’t vacuum up the pieces or you will contaminate your machine, and the rest of your house when you use it. You can use sticky tape to pick up the small pieces and then wipe down the area with a wet disposable cloth.

The Maine study also showed that carpet was the worst surface for a break, and even after 28 days of intensive cleaning of the carpet surface, only one footstep poofed-up about 5,000 nanograms of Mercury. They recommend cutting the piece of carpet out completely and disposing of it as toxic waste.

You need to either 1) hand carry bulbs including broken ones to the landfill Hazardous Household Waste location, or 2) hand carry them to Home Depot or IKEA for recycling. The bulbs are packaged up very carefully and shipped to a recycling plant where the Mercury is sucked out of the bulbs to prevent it from going into the atmosphere.

The health effects from toxic Mercury exposure can include neurological damage, tremors, learning disabilities, and death. Children are 100 times more susceptible to these exposures. Reports on Chinese workers in factories producing CFLs state that workers are suffering Mercury poisoning and death from their exposure on the job.

Known Hazard # 2: EMF

The additional hazard from Compact Florescent Bulbs (CLF) is the electromagnetic field, or EMF, that is emitted from the ballast. I have measured these fields at up to 5 milliGauss (mG) or more at several feet away from the bulb. The Building Biology Institute’s Standard of “No Concern” is under 1 mG and under 0.2 mG in the bedroom.

Some people can actually feel or see flickering or get headaches or eyestrain from the radiation emitted from all fluorescent lighting. That includes the large tube lighting in ceiling fixtures, under-cabinet task lighting in kitchens, fluorescent flashlights and ‘full spectrum’ fluorescent lighting (which has more of the natural light color spectrum but still has the same Mercury hazards).

So let’s hope, in this process we eliminate not only mercury hazards in our homes, but also that insidious squiggly light bulb logo that has come to represent “green.” I just discovered it showing up on my new Macbook laptop, purportedly the greenest computer on the planet, which has an LED backlit screen. There, representing the energy saving screen saver is – low and behold – the icon of a CFL bulb!

A fun story: after that 2008 conference, I came home and took out all forty CFL bulbs and set them carefully in a big basket. I had scheduled an energy audit from my power company, Progress Energy, and the rep, wrapping up, presented me with a gift, beaming as he handed me a box with … two CFL bulbs! As I showed him my big basket, I said, “We’re going to have a conversation!”

Diana Schultz is a certified Building Biology Environmental Consultant, a certified Electromagnetic Radiation Specialist,  and the owner of Green & Healthy Homes, in Orlando, Florida.