February 4, 2008

CFL Mercury Light Bulbs Must Now Be Treated As Hazardous Waste in New Hampshire

Heads up.

New rule for new light bulbs

New Hampshire Sunday News Staff
Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008

The message seems to be everywhere these days: "Change a light, change the world."

Environmental groups, utilities, government agencies, retailers -- even Oprah Winfrey -- all have promoted the switch to compact fluorescent lights as an easy way to save money, reduce energy consumption and limit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

But another message has been nearly lost in all the enthusiasm: These bulbs contain mercury, a highly toxic heavy metal, and have to be disposed of carefully, especially if they're broken.

As of Jan. 1, New Hampshire bans the disposal of any "mercury-added" product, including spent CFLs and "button-cell" batteries, in landfills, transfer stations or incinerators. So now, instead of throwing those lightbulbs in your household trash, you'll have to recycle them, either through your municipality or a participating retailer.

And if you break one, you need to handle it as hazardous waste.

Whatever you do, don't vacuum a broken bulb, advises Pamela Schnepper, a toxicologist in the environmental health program at the Department of Environmental Services. "That will spread it through the house, it will put it in the air, and then the vacuum cleaner will be contaminated."

Instead, environmental experts advise, ventilate the room and leave it for 15 minutes. The safest approach is to wear gloves, and use cardboard and duct tape to pick up small pieces and powder, seal everything in a screw-top jar, and store the jar in a safe place until you can dispose of it at a hazardous waste collection.
feb3 compact lights 270px (SHAWNE K. WICKHAM)

Linda Farruggio of LeBlanc's Hardware holds a pair of compact fluorescent light bulbs. (SHAWNE K. WICKHAM)

The risk of mercury exposure from one broken lightbulb is low, Schnepper stressed. "All we want to do is make sure people know to clean it up properly."

She said DES plans to update its cleanup and disposal guidelines after the upcoming release of a Maine study about the mercury risk from broken CFLs.

Noting her agency bases its mercury advisories on the most sensitive populations, Schnepper said she expects DES will advise keeping pregnant women and young children -- the developing nervous system is most vulnerable to the harmful effects of mercury exposure -- out of the area while a broken bulb is cleaned up.

Stephanie D'Agostino, supervisor of the pollution prevention section at DES, has worked on mercury reduction for a decade. She cited "disconnect" between researchers working on mercury reduction and those pushing energy efficiency and said her agency recently sent municipalities information packets about the new law for mercury-containing products.

A typical household CFL contains about 5 mg of mercury (about the size of a ballpoint pen's tip). To put that in perspective, an old-fashioned mercury thermometer -- the kind you can't even buy anymore -- contains about 500 mg, according to the EPA.

Experts point out that compact fluorescents, because they use less electricity and last longer than incandescent lightbulbs, reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. But they say it's important not to put the mercury back into the waste stream when the bulbs eventually do burn out or break.

It only takes a small amount of mercury to harm the environment, according to D'Agostino. One gram "is enough to contaminate a 20-acre lake to the point where you would have to issue a fish consumption advisory."

D'Agostino said CFLs are now the "largest source of mercury in the solid waste stream."

"It used to be batteries, but since 1996, mercury in alkaline batteries has been banned ... In the meantime, we're all using more and more fluorescent lights, so that's causing there to be a higher level of disposal."

To address that, the state partnered with more than two dozen True Value hardware stores to recycle spent CFLs, and DES is now setting up a similar program with Ace Hardware stores. D'Agostino said she's also hoping some of the big-box stores, such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart, that promoted the sale of CFLs will start recycling them.

Currently, about 60 municipal facilities accept unbroken CFLs for recycling.

The new state law banning disposal of CFLs and other mercury-added products does not specify penalties for violators. However, it comes under the state's solid waste law, RSA 149-M, which authorizes fines and even criminal charges.

Scott Bradford, manager of the Peterborough Recycling Center, said his facility has been recycling fluorescent lamps for years. He said some residents recently have brought in brand-new CFLs to recycle after learning they contain mercury.

Bradford contends CFLs need better product labeling. "I definitely think on the side of the box in big print there should be some kind of a warning, not so much as a deterrent but just an informative piece on there that says, 'Hey if you do buy this, be wary.' "

Jennifer Dolin is environmental marketing manager for Osram Sylvania, which has three manufacturing plants in New Hampshire. (None make lightbulbs; those are all made in China, she said.)

Informing the public about proper handling of CFLs should be a "shared responsibility" among manufacturers, retailers, utilities and government agencies, Dolin said. She said that as Sylvania's packaging is updated, it will include a link to the company's Web site, where such information is posted.

Julia Dundorf, co-director of the New Hampshire Carbon Coalition, said she doesn't want the mercury issue to discourage people from buying CFLs. But, she said, "I think it is critical that at the point of sale there is more information for the public."

The issue is about to get even more pressing.

The energy bill Congress passed late last year included new efficiency standards for lightbulbs that effectively phase out most incandescent bulbs by 2012. (There are a few exceptions, such as the low-watt bulbs used in appliances.)

Osram Sylvania's Dolin said manufacturers are working on new products that will meet those standards, including some that won't contain mercury.

For now, D'Agostino suggests consumers should make choices based on their own comfort levels, perhaps avoiding using CFLs in a child's room or an area where they are more likely to break. "I don't think there's a huge harm done if you don't put them in every single light socket in the house," she said.
What to do

The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has a list of municipalities and hardware stores that accept unbroken compact fluorescent lights for recycling. DES also provides instructions for cleaning up and disposing of a broken CFL.

ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the federal Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Energy to promote energy efficiency. For information about compact fluorescent lights and the "Change a Light, Change the World" campaign, go to energystar.gov.


Angela said...

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Casdok said...

An interesting post.

Jon said...

From cflfacts.com. Similar info is available from the EPA. About 50% of the electricity in the US is generated from coal. Coal is the largest source of mercury in our environment. I've never broken a CFL in the 20+ years I've been using them.
Doesn't disposal of mercury-based products harm the environment?

Yes, mercury is classified as a hazardous material by the US Environmental Protection Agency and CFLs should be recycled instead of being thrown out with the normal trash. However, in many cases use of CFLs will offset mercury that would otherwise be introduced into the environment from other sources. For example, coal contains mercury and this mercury is released into the environment when coal is burned to produce electricity. If the electricity used to operate your lamps is generated from coal and you operate 100-watt incandescent lamps for 10,000 hours, the power generating plant will release between 40 mg and 70 mg of mercury into the environment, depending upon the type of coal being used. In instead of the 100-watt incandescent lamp, you use a 25-watt CFL, the power plant mercury emissions drop to between 10 and 18 mg over the same 10,000 hour period, again depending upon the type of coal used. Even when the 5 mg of mercury in the CFL is added to the environment at the end of the lamp's 10,000 hours life, the total mercury from using the CFL is far less than using the incandescent lamp. Mercury emissions will be lower for For lower power incandescent lamps and CFL replacements, but for any incandescent lamp of 40 watts or greater, there will be more mercury added to the environment by using an incandescent lamp than by using a CFL, assuming that the electricity used to operate both is generated by burning coal.
If the electrical power used to operate your lamps comes from oil, hydro, wind, even nuclear power plants then use of a CFL will not be directly offsetting mercury released by power plants. However, by using less electrical power from your "low-mercury" or "mercury-free" generating plant, you make more of this relatively clean power available to replace power generated by coal-fired plants. And, you will save money, no matter what type of fuel is used to generate your electrical power.

Because CFLs contain mercury they should be recycled instead of thrown in the normal trash. However, even if a relatively large number of CFLs are disposed of in landfills instead of being recycled, they will not significantly increase the amount of mercury in the waste stream. A report titled Mercury Programme, published by the United Nations Environmental Programme, estimated that in 2000 there were 145 metric tons of mercury added to the solid waste stream in the United States. If 200 million CFLs, each containing 5 mg of mercury were placed in the solid waste stream in one year, they would add only 1 metric ton, or less than 0.7% of the total annual mercury load in the waste stream

barbiec1965 said...

I have no interest in buying these lightbulbs. I am a Mom that worries everyday about our children and their health. We had an incident where a cfl was broken in our home. My husband was not aware of the clean up method and decided to vacuum it up with our good oreck vacuum out of our carpeting. I seen him doing this, I picked up our children 2 and 8 and left our home for the night. I told he needs to leave with us. He didn't feel their was a need to leave so he stayed. He opened the windows for the night and put the vacuum outside. It was a summer night. The next evening we did come home. Tried to stay out of our living room. But, eventually had to go back in there. About a week later my husband refusing to throw away our oreck vacuum brought that back in also. Everytime we vacuum I try to remove the children out of the living room. It scares me very much. I had no idea when I bought these lightbulbs they had mercury in them. As I was throwing the lightbulb away I seen in small writing Contains Mercury. I refuse to have them in our home. I got rid of the other unused lightbulbs we had. I have a feeling some people are unaware these contain mercury and are disposing of them improperly. Until you break them do you know how dangerous they really are. Now, I tell people of my story, and tell them I will not be buying these again until they take all mercury out of the cfl's. I fear everyday of what our children are being exposed to. Unfortunately, now I question our government and what they will subject us to. I as a U.S. citizen would like to believe our government.

Rivka said...

I don't know if I will get a response or not, but i totally agree with your post.. I must also add that these lightbulbs will literally hurt the eyes of people with autism who have SID. I have a son with autism and these lights really hurt his eyes and it is harder for him to focus. People with autism and sensory dysfunction in the eyes will really suffer because of this. They have no choice.

I want to start a petition or something in order to either get this law overturned so that we can have a choice in the matter or to at least add incandescents as an option for people with autism and their families.

Ginger Taylor said...

I had not even thought about the sensory issues!

Get going on advocating for this issue and keep me informed on how it goes.