WaPo Kids Post Touts CFL Bulbs, Leaves Out Mercury Disposal Problem

NewsBusters.org | Photo by Susan Biddle for the Washington PostThe Kids Post section in the Washington Post is designed, in theory, to be a fun and educational way to get young children interested in current events and exposed to the issues of the day, ostensibly understanding more than one side of any issue.

But in practice the section can give kids a one-sided presentation that gives only half the story. Such was the case with today's article, "Girl Scouts have a bright idea," which lauded an effort by the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital to have each of its 63,000 members to "replace one regular light bulb with an energy-saving bulb," namely the compact fluorescent CFLs bulbs that "use about 75 percent less electricity than standard incandescent bulbs."

The article closed by quoting Girl Scout Madison Harris saying she feels "like I'm really saving the environment by just doing simple things."

Of course, environmental policy is never that quite cut-and-dried, yet nowhere in her 10-paragraph article did reporter Margaret Webb Pressler inform kids that CFLs, far from being an easy energy-reducing Earth-saving fix, actually pose potential environmental and health hazards, particularly in homes with small children or pregnant women. 

What's more, this is hardly news to the mainstream media. Here's how NPR, hardly a right-wing news outlet, noted the mercury problem in a February 2007 story:

But the bulbs contain small amounts of mercury, a neurotoxin, and the companies and federal government haven't come up with effective ways to get Americans to recycle them.

"The problem with the bulbs is that they'll break before they get to the landfill. They'll break in containers, or they'll break in a dumpster or they'll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens," says John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, the trade group for the people who handle trash and recycling.

Skinner says when bulbs break near homes, they can contaminate the soil.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, and it's especially dangerous for children and fetuses. Most exposure to mercury comes from eating fish contaminated with mercury,

Some states, cities and counties have outlawed putting CFL bulbs in the trash, but in most states the practice is legal.

Pete Keller works for Eco Lights Northwest, the only company in Washington state that recycles fluorescent lamps. He says it is illegal to put the bulbs in the trash in some counties in Washington, but most people still throw them out.

"I think most people do want to recycle, but if it's not made easy, it doesn't happen," Keller says. "And they're small enough to fit in a trash can. So by nature, I think most people are not recyclers. So if it's small enough to fit in a trash can, that's where it ends up."

Experts agree that it's not easy for most people to recycle these bulbs. Even cities that have curbside recycling won't take the bulbs. So people have to take them to a hazardous-waste collection day or a special facility.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency program concedes that not enough has been done to urge people to recycle CFL bulbs and make it easier for them to do so.

"I share your frustration that there isn't a national infrastructure for the proper recycling of this product," says Wendy Reed, who manages EPA's Energy Star program. That programs gives the compact bulbs its "energy star" seal of approval.

So most people are unaware that the bulbs need to be properly recycled and there's a dearth of recycling programs available for CFLs.

What's more, what happens when a CFL bulb breaks? How does one properly clean up the mess, which includes a harmful neurotoxin?

Glad you asked, here's how the EPA counsels you clean up the mess (bear with me, it's rather long):

How should I clean up a broken fluorescent bulb?

Because CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, EPA recommends the following clean-up and disposal guidelines:
1. Before Clean-up: Air Out the Room

  • Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
  • Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
  • Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

2. Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces

  • Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
  • Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass pieces and powder.
  • Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.
  • Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

3. Clean-up Steps for Carpeting or Rug:

  • Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
  • Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
  • If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.
  • Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.

4. Clean-up Steps for Clothing, Bedding, etc.:

  • If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away. Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.
  • You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, such as the clothing you are wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.
  • If shoes come into direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from the bulb, wipe them off with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal.

5. Disposal of Clean-up Materials

  • Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup.
  • Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials.
  • Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

6. Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug: Air Out the Room During and After Vacuuming

  • The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.
  • Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.

It's fine for the Girl Scouts to want to encourage energy efficiency, and there's nothing wrong with having a positive story on that development, but CFLs in the home come with a cost that exceeds the greenbacks forked over at Home Depot or Wal-Mart. 

It's a shame that Pressler failed to consider informing her young readers of the trade-off in convenience and safety that CFLs present over traditional incandescent bulbs.

Photo at top of post by Susan Biddle for the Washington Post. The accompanying caption in the print edition reads, "Girl Scout official Nancy Wood hands out light bulbs to Nia Anderson, foreground, Tijara Smith, left, Sekai Bonner-Flagg, Madison Harris and Alana Dickey."

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.