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Thomas Edison, inventor of mercury-free light bulb

Thomas Edison must be rolling over in his grave.

Less than a month after the U.S. Congress passed an energy bill banning the incandescent light bulb by 2014, the UK Environment Agency issued guidelines calling for evacuation of any room where an energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulb is broken, releasing toxic mercury.

The warning comes a month before the British government begins its phase-out of tungsten bulbs, scheduled to be completed in 2011. The switchover to CFL bulbs will save at least five million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, the government said.

Health experts warned this week that people with certain skin ailments will suffer from the new eco-friendly bulbs which cause conditions such as eczema to flare up. Additionally, the bulbs have been linked to migraine headaches in some people.

The Environment Agency’s latest advice focuses on the 6 to 8 milligrams of toxic mercury in each bulb.

Users who break a bulb should vacate the room for at least 15 minutes, the new guidelines say. The debris should not be removed with a vacuum cleaner, which could put toxic dust into the air, but with rubber gloves. The broken glass and all residue is to be placed into a sealed plastic bag and taken to a local official recycling site for proper disposal.

“Because these light bulbs contain small amounts of mercury, they could cause a problem if disposed of in a normal bin,” environmental scientist Dr David Spurgeon told the London Daily Mail.

“It is possible that the mercury could be released into the air or from land-fill when they are released into the wider environment. That is a concern, because mercury is a well-known toxic substance.”

The Environmental Agency noted that neither warnings about the bulbs’ toxicity nor directions for proper disposal is printed on any packaging.

Such warnings aren’t necessary, said one toxicologist who said a number of bulbs would have to be smashed simultaneously before there was a danger.

“Mercury accumulates in the body – especially the brain,” Dr. David Ray, from the University of Nottingham, told the BBC. “The biggest danger is repeated exposure – a one off exposure is not as potentially dangerous compared to working in a light bulb factory.

“If you smash one bulb then that is not too much of a hazard. However, if you broke five bulbs in a small unventilated room then you might be in short term danger.”


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