In a recent Washington Times op-ed, Steven Milloy, publisher of Junkscience.com, tells the story of Brandy Bridges, who had the misfortune of breaking a mercury-containing compact fluorescent bulb in her home and ended up with a $2000 cleanup bill from a local environmental remediation firm.
Ms. Bridges tale exposes a serious problem with existing environmental regulations. Currently mercury is considered a hazardous pollutant and is strictly regulated by the EPA and state environmental agencies. Mercury emissions by industry are strictly monitored, particularly where employee exposure is involved. The allowable amount of mercury in air, water, or soil is extremely minute.
And here is where the problems start. If you break a CFL you will release approximately 5 milligrams of mercury, some as vapor and some as extremely small drops of liquid, which will eventually evaporate. This will result in an immediate airborne concentration of mercury that exceeds OSHA's permissible mercury exposure level for employees. (Thanks to Shots Across The Bow for doing the math.)
So if you break a bulb in your home, have you just exposed your family to a harmful toxic pollutant, all in the name of slowing down global warming? Technically yes, but unless you break a lot of bulbs over a short period of time, there should be no harmful effects. In other words, no one in your family should become "mad as a hatter."
In his op-ed, Milloy also notes that if these bulbs are disposed in regular trash, they will contaminate landfills, possibly resulting in expensive environmental cleanups and endless litigation. And it appears that the government has yet to figure out a disposal system for all the CFL's that will need to be replaced in five years or so. Perhaps its time for the EPA to take a second look at mercury levels defined in the CERCLA Superfund law.
On the other hand, benzene -- the primary component of gasoline -- is a CDC class A carcinogen, yet we are not required to wear a haz-mat suit or use a respirator when we pump gasoline into our cars. Despite its dangers, we have lived with gasoline in our everyday lives for a century. The public outcry against excessive requirements for the handling of gasoline would be enormous, so much so that such requirements would probably be pointless.
Maybe the same thing will happen with all those mercury-containing CFL's.
ADDED: Chaz at Dustbury.com corrected my mistake about benzene. It is not the primary component of gasoline, but it is a primary indicator of environmental contamination by gasoline or refined hydrocarbons. The primary components of gasoline are hexane, heptane, and octane. Benzene is about 1% of gasoline. Still, gasoline is nasty stuff.