CFLs release mercury vapor when broken

A new study indicates that when a compact fluorescent bulb is broken, mercury is released in a vapor. And the bulb will continue to release vapor for more than 10 weeks.

According to the authors of the study, the levels of mercury emitted by the bulbs can actually exceed the amount considered safe for people.

The research [PDF] was published in the journal Environmental Engineering Science.

"Since vapor mercury can be readily inhaled by people, rapid removal of broken bulbs and sufficient ventilation of rooms by fresh air are critical to prevent people from potential harm," said the authors of the study, Yadong Li and Li Jin of Jackson State University in Mississippi.

Li and Jin tested eight brands of compact fluorescent bulbs with five wattages. They found the amount of mercury in the bulbs varied depending on the brand. The authors would not disclose which brands they tested.

Concerns about mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs are not new. Manufacturers have reduced the amount of liquid mercury used in the bulbs over the past few years.

Because the levels of liquid mercury that can escape from a broken bulb are lower than the level allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the bulbs are not considered hazardous waste. What had not yet been quantified – or understood – was the amount of mercury that could escape as vapor.

And according to this new research, vapor buildup in a poorly ventilated room could be dangerous. The study indicates that in some cases, the bulbs can release more than 10 times the amount of mercury considered safe for children.

"This paper is a very nice holistic analysis of potential risks associated with mercury release from broken CFLs and points to potential human health threats that have not always been considered," said Domenico Grasso, a researcher at the University of Vermont, who was not involved in the study.

The authors suggested that improved packaging could be designed to both better protect the bulbs during shipping and handling and to absorb the mercury if released.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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