WASHINGTON – Despite a congressional mandate banning the sale of common incandescent light bulbs by 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is warning that their compact fluorescent replacements are not safe to use everywhere.

The EPA says breakage of the energy-saving, mercury-containing CFLs can cause health hazards, especially for children and pregnant women, suggesting use of the bulbs over carpeted areas should be avoided. If bulbs break over carpeted areas, the cleanup may require cutting out pieces of the carpet to avoid toxic exposures.

Mercury is needed for the lamps to produce light, and there are currently no known substitutes. Small amounts of the toxic substance is vaporized when they break, which can happen if people screw them in holding the glass instead of the base or just drop them.

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal that accumulates in the body and can harm the nervous system of a fetus or young child if ingested in sufficient quantity.

For the Maine study, researchers shattered 65 compact fluorescents to test air quality and cleanup methods. They found that, in many cases, immediately after the bulb was broken – and sometimes even after a cleanup was attempted – levels of mercury vapor exceeded federal guidelines for chronic exposure by as much as 100 times.

In a new Maine study, mercury vapor released by the bulbs exceeded even those higher levels.

The study recommended that when a compact fluorescent breaks, consumers should get children and pets out of the room and ventilate it. It warned vacuums should never be used to clean up a broken compact fluorescent lamps. Instead, it recommends using stiff paper and tape to pick up pieces.

Some states require broken compact fluorescent light bulbs to be disposed of as household hazardous waste. Others ban disposal of bulbs in trash.

Talk-radio giant Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the mandated new bulbs on his program today, saying, “It is so, frankly, ridiculous and absurd that it insults my intelligence, and it worries me when so many people are so mind-numbed that they go along with these charades and make themselves feel like they’re actually doing something to improve their lives. …

“When you’re going to allow a bunch of bureaucrats to turn over as much of your freedom as you have, this is what you get. When you buy into hoaxes and silly things that a little examination with your own common sense can tell you is not true – such as incandescent lightbulbs are destroying the planet, causing global warming – if you’re going to buy into this tripe, then you deserve what you get. You deserve it. The problem is, we’re all going to get it, too, because of people’s stupidity. We’re not going to have a choice to put compact fluorescents in our houses or not.”

Thanks to pressures from environmentalists, sales are skyrocketing for compact fluorescent lamps. More than 290 million compact fluorescents carrying the EPA’s “Energy Star” label sold last year, nearly double the number in 2006. Compact fluorescents now make up 20 percent of the U.S. light bulb market, and sales are all but guaranteed to grow – especially since a new law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush bans sales of common incandescent bulbs starting in 2012.

Compact fluorescents can contain from 1 to 30 milligrams of mercury, according to the Mercury Policy Project. The nonprofit cited a New Jersey study that estimated that about two to four tons of the element are released into the environment in the U.S. each year from compact fluorescents.

Soon-to-be released results of tests conducted by the state of Maine confirm earlier states’ findings suggesting that under certain conditions mercury vapor released from broken CFLs can pose a health risk. As a precaution, states such as Vermont are now suggesting removal of carpeting where breakage has occurred when there are infants and pregnant women present. Other states such as Massachusetts are likely to recommend that CFLs not be placed in fixtures subject to breakage in areas frequented by sensitive populations.


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