Some light bulbs require special handling

October 20, 2010 3:45:24 PM PDT
Energy saving light bulbs can help cut your electricity bills, but when the bulbs go out, you shouldn't just throw them in the trash. Experts say there are several steps you need to follow to dispose of them properly. When they go out, you have to take them to a facility that can properly dispose of the bulbs, but the bigger problem comes if one breaks in your home.

When an incandescent light bulb breaks, you just sweep it up, throw it away and move on. But that's the last thing you should do if a compact fluorescent bulb breaks, but most people don't know it. Dominique Rogers certainly did not.

She said, "I thought it was just vacuum them up, sweep them up and throw it away, just like you would an original light bulb and that's not the case."

It turns out that is the opposite of how to clean up a compact fluorescent, because the bulbs contain mercury.

Director of Utilities and Energy Services at the University of Houston Sameer Kapileshwari explained, "It does have some mercury in it. It is about four milligrams of mercury in it. Just to give a comparison, the old thermometers we are used to had 500 milligrams."

Kapileshwari says because of the mercury, don't be in a hurry to clean up a broken CFL. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends getting everyone out of the room, turning off the air conditioning and then airing the room out the room for 15 minutes.

Do not use the vacuum cleaner. Instead, scoop up the larger pieces, then use tape to pick up the smaller shards of glass, instead of a broom. Put everything in a sealed bag and then bring it to a recycling center. The extra precautions make some wonder if the bulbs are safe.

"We do have some of the older light bulbs that we have here in stock and we are going to put them in the lamps the baby could reach," Rogers said.

The EPA says mercury exposure can adversely affect a baby's growing brain and nervous system, so extra care when handling a broken CFL is urged.

"If you have young children and pregnant ... you should take precautions," Kapileshwari advised.

If the CFL breaks on your clothes or on your sheets, the EPA says to throw them away -- not wash them, but throw them away. And if a bulb breaks on your carpet, the EPA says after you've done the initial clean up, every time you vacuum the carpet, turn off the AC and open the windows.

US EPA Clean-up and Disposal Recommendations for Broken Bulbs:

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.


Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces

  • Carefully scoop up glass pieces 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 fragments 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.


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.


Clean-up Steps for Clothing, Bedding and Other Soft Materials

  • 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.


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.


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.

The City of Houston will accept fluorescent light bulbs and tubes from residents at the North and South Environmental Service Centers and the  Westpark Consumer Recycling Center.

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