Compact fluorescent lamps - those spiral, energy-efficient bulbs popular as a device to combat global warming - can pose a small risk of mercury poisoning to infants, young children, and pregnant women if they break, two reports concluded yesterday.
But the reports, issued by the state of Maine and the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project, urged homeowners to keep using compact fluorescents because their energy-saving benefits far outweigh the risk posed by mercury released from a broken lamp.
They said most danger could be avoided if people exercised common-sense caution, such as not using compact fluorescents in table lamps that could be knocked over by children or pets and properly cleaning up broken bulbs.
The US Environmental Protection Agency and the states of Massachusetts and Vermont said yesterday that, based on the Maine study, they are revising their recommendations for where to use compact fluorescents in a home and how to clean up when one breaks.
"Using compact fluorescent bulbs is still the brightest idea out there," said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project, a nonprofit organization that works to eliminate mercury use. "The message is: People should not be afraid but informed and prepared and learn how to dispose of them properly."
The two reports constitute one of the most comprehensive examinations of the dangers posed by the lights, which use about 1 percent of the amount of mercury found in old thermometers.
Mercury is needed for the lamps to produce light, and there are no known substitutes. No mercury is emitted when compact fluorescents are burned, but a small amount is vaporized when they break, which can happen if people screw them in holding the glass instead of the base or 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.
There is no federal guideline for acute exposure. Some states, including Maine, use the chronic exposure level as their overall standard, while others, such as California, have chosen higher levels for acute exposure. Still, the mercury vapor released by the bulbs in the Maine study exceeded even those higher levels.
"We found some very high levels [of mercury] even after we tried a number of cleanup techniques," said Mark Hyland, director of Maine's Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management. He said levels were the lowest if the room was well ventilated after breakage.
The study recommended that if a compact fluorescent breaks, get children and pets out of the room. Ventilate the room. Never use a vacuum, even on a rug, to clean up a broken compact fluorescent lamps. Instead, use stiff paper such as index cards and tape to pick up pieces, and then wipe the area with a wet wipe or damp paper towel. If there are young children or pregnant woman in the house, consider cutting out the piece of carpet where the lamp broke as a precaution. Place the shards and cleanup debris in a glass jar with a screw top and remove the jar from the house.
Disposal regulations vary from state to state, with some requiring broken compact fluorescent light bulbs, to be disposed of as household hazardous waste. Most states allow intact compact fluorescents to be thrown away, but some - such as Vermont, Minnesota, and California - ban disposal in trash, according to Bender.
Some stores, such as Ikea, have set out recycling containers for fluorescent bulbs. In Maine, Hyland says, some 200 retailers are participating in compact fluorescent recycling.
Massachusetts is also ramping up a compact fluorescent recycling program and in May will ban disposal of any intact compact fluorescent lamp in trash. However, broken ones - because their mercury would probably have been vaporized - may be thrown away.
Sales are skyrocketing for compact fluorescent lamps, which use about 75 percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs, as consumers become more aware of global warming and the long-term cost savings. 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 US light bulb market, and sales are all but guaranteed to grow: A new law requires lights to become much more energy-efficient starting in 2012.
According to the US Department of Energy, if every household replaced just one light bulb with a compact fluorescent, the United States would save more than $600 million each year in energy costs and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equal to 800,000 cars.
But 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 2 to 4 tons of the element are released into the environment in the United States each year from compact fluorescents. That number is expected to grow as sales do. In comparison, about 48 tons of mercury is released into the environment by power plants each year, according to federal statistics.
"People should continue to support CFLs until there are mercury-free alternatives available," said Cindy Luppi of Clean Water Action, a local advocacy group.
ENERGY-EFFICIENT light bulbs are good for the planet but can be bad for your health.
A study of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) has shown how they often fail to meet their advertised intensity of light, a member of the Optometrists Association Australia has warned.
While the bulbs were a positive step in reducing a home's carbon footprint, they could result in dimmer rooms that would increase the household's risk of falls and vision problems.
"Two-thirds of CFLs that are claimed to be the equivalent of a 75-watt incandescent lamp, deliver less light than expected," said researcher and optometrist Professor Stephen Dain from the University of NSW.
"In some cases they only produce light equivalent of an old 60-watt lamp."
Prof Dain said households should choose carefully when purchasing CFLs to replace their incandescent light bulbs. Choose a CFL that was rated at a higher light output than the conventional bulb it would replace, he said.
Good lighting was important to prevent eye strain and fatigue and this was particularly the case for older Australians.
Less light would reach the retina as the eye aged, he said, meaning most people over 60 needed three times more light to see as adequately as they did in their 20s.
"As poor vision is a major risk factor for falls in older people, good lighting at home can help reduce this risk," Prof Dain said.
"Improving lighting by selecting higher wattage lamps, especially in kitchen and stairs areas, reduces the risk of trips and falls."
Prof Dain said Australians needed effective lighting in their homes as well as the correct spectacles and regular eye check-ups to make the most of their vision.
CFLs were "significantly better in terms of energy efficiency" but they were yet to meet expectations in terms of lighting, he said.
New EU law starts phasing out of traditional light bulbs
The new legislation will make it illegal for EU states to manufacture and import traditional light bulbs, but it does not require consumers or businesses to replace all their light bulbs immediately and retailers will be permitted to sell off existing stocks, which are expected to last around three to four more months.
Energy efficient compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) use 80 per cent less energy than an old fashioned bulb, reducing annual energy bills by between £3 and £6 per lamp.
Environment Minister Dan Norris welcomed the implementation of legislation that will enforce the switch to CFLs. “We can no longer rely on light bulbs which waste 95 per cent of their energy as heat. We are glad the EU has put this measure in place to stop the waste of energy and money from old fashioned high energy bulbs,” he said.
Compliance with the new legislation will, for the time being, be overseen by Trading Standards, although the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is currently consulting on the possibility of establishing a new body to do this.
“With new energy standards and energy labels coming in across the EU for white goods and other products, as well as the new rules on light bulbs, we are consulting on the best way to surveil what comes in and out of the country and how to enforce the standards that the EU has set in law,” a Defra spokesperson said.
Any individual found breaking the new rules and importing traditional 100W incandescent bulbs after September 1 faces a fine of £5,000, with potentially unlimited fines for breaches by large companies.
But Defra does not expect such sanctions to be need. “We don’t expect people to be breaking the rules because of the profitability that will result from everybody switching to low energy light bulbs,” said a spokesperson. “There is no worth in selling a 20 pence light bulb for the risk of a £5,000 fine.”
The Eco-design for Energy-using Products Framework Directive restricts the manufacture and import into the EU of 100W and frosted incandescent lamps from September 1, with a phase out of lamps of lower wattage by 2012.