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EPA relaxes tips for dealing with broken fluorescent lights

| Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011

Thomas Edison's beloved incandescent light bulb is on the way out, and many of the bulbs will be replaced in the next year or two with the popular compact fluorescent lamp.

CFLs are known to pose some risks when they break, and the Environmental Protection Agency has revised guidelines for their safe disposal.

CFLs, more than twice as energy efficient, are gaining U.S. market share as the congressionally mandated phaseout of incandescents begins next January with the 100-watt bulb. California began the phaseout this month.

Yet the curly-Q-shaped CFL contains a tiny bit of mercury, which EPA warns can be released as vapor and poses "potential health risks" if a bulb is broken.

EPA's initial cleanup tips created "some overreaction" because of their detail, says Terry McGowan, director of engineering for the American Lighting Association, a trade group.

"These guidelines are much more realistic," McGowan says, noting they don't require people to wait as long before cleaning up a broken bulb. Previously, EPA recommended they wait at least 15 minutes. Now it suggests five to 10 minutes, citing a 2008 study that found mercury exposure peaked in the first 5 minutes of breakage.

McGowan says manufacturers are reducing the amount of mercury in CFLs, but since it's needed to create the light, it can't be eliminated.

The EPA estimates the average CFL bulb has 4 milligrams of mercury -- much less than the 500 milligrams in an old-fashioned thermometer. A recent report by a European Commission scientific panel said adults are unlikely to be harmed by the mercury of a broken bulb.

EPA urges Americans to use efficient lights such as CFLs, arguing their lower electricity use will reduce the overall amount of mercury and other pollutants in the environment. It says consumers should properly dispose of CFLs by checking for local recycling places on Earth911's website, www.earth911.com.

CFLs, sold for as little as a dollar each, account for about 20 percent of bulbs sold in the United States, up from less than 2 percent in 2000, says a September 2010 Department of Energy report.

"Americans are taking a more common-sense approach to them," says Stephanie Anderson of Osram Sylvania, a lighting company that conducts an annual Socket Survey of U.S. consumer attitudes. Its most recent 2010 survey, released this month, finds 21 percent of adults are concerned about the mercury in CFLs, down from 27 percent in 2009.

The survey finds 72 percent of U.S. households use at least one CFL, compared with 82 percent that use incandescents and 27 percent using LEDs, or light-emitting diodes. LEDs do not contain mercury, are dimmable and last much longer than CFLs but still cost much more.

Additional Information:

Revised tips

Here's a summary of EPA's revised tips for cleaning up a broken CFL:

Before cleanup

• Have people and pets leave the room.

• Air out the room for 5 to 10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.

• Shut off the central forced air heating/air conditioning system.

• Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulbs.

During cleanup

• Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.

• Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

After cleanup

• Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of properly.

• For several hours, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off.

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