Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Hazardous waste

When we moved into our house there were several old fluorescent tubes left behind.  I looked into how to dispose of them properly and discovered the reason they were probably never taken care of is that it's kind of a pain.  You have to call the city and make an appointment for pickup.  Then they have to be wrapped a certain way.  Then you have to remember to put them out on your pickup day.  In a place that they can be visible for the picker upper but in a place that they won't get broken in the meantime.  And because I'm lazy like that the tubes have been sitting by the side of my driveway for almost a year now.

However, the inevitable finally happened.  The tubes got hit by one of the cars or something dropped on them because there was glass and white power all over the place.  I have to admit, I was kind of happy that I no longer had to worry about getting them picked up.  I busted out my broom and dustpan and went to work cleaning the driveway.  No more glass.  No more power.  No more unsightly garbage on my driveway.

When I got to work, I started feeling a little sick.  Just a wee bit of a sore throat and headache.  Something stirred in the back of my mind.  Hmmm.... I think there's a particular way you are supposed to clean up broken fluorescent tubes.  Flashes of long-forgotten instructions darted through my mind.  

"Wear gloves..."  "Avoid breathing..."  "Do not sweep..."  This sounds serious.  I'd better investigate.  Here's what I found from THE GOVERNMENT:

How to Clean Up Broken Fluorescent Bulbs and Tubes

Compact fluorescent light bulbs and tubes save energy and are safe to use but contain mercury and need to be safely recycled when they burn out.
If you break a compact fluorescent light bulb or linear fluorescent tube before it can be recycled it must be cleaned up properly:
  • avoid breathing vapors
  • avoid touching broken materials
  • do not vacuum or sweep
  • follow proper clean-up steps shown below for hard surface or carpet clean-up.
How to clean up a broken compact fluorescent light bulb or tube from a hard surface such as a tile floor or countertop. 
  1. Remove jewelry and put on rubber gloves.
  2. Have people and pets leave the room. DO NOT let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
  3. Open windows and shut off central forced-air heating/cooling system if you have one then leave the room to vent vapors for at least 15 minutes.
  4. Use stiff paper or cardboard to pick up large pieces.
  5. Place them in a secure closed container, preferably a glass jar with a metal screw top lid and seal like a canning jar. This type of container works best to contain the mercury vapors.
  6. Use index cards or playing cards to pick up small pieces and powder.
  7. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape or masking tape to pick up fine particles.
  8. Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or wet wipe.
  9. Place all materials used to clean-up into a sealed container, preferably glass.
  10. Continue ventilating the room for several hours.
  11. If clothing, bedding or other soft materials have come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury powder, they should be taken to your local household hazardous waste facility. DO NOT wash in washing machine, sink or by other methods. Place soft materials in a sealed plastic bag.
  12. If shoes come into direct contact with broken glass or mercury powder, DO NOT spread mercury over a larger area.  Wipe shoes with a damp paper towel or wet wipe and place towel or wipe into a sealed container, preferably glass. 
  13. Immediately place all clean-up materials in a protected area away from children and pets.
  14. Wash your hands.
  15. Dispose of cleaning supplies, broken bulbs and tubes and clothing, bedding or other soft materials at your local household hazardous waste facility – not in your garbage.

Suddenly, I was so very itchy.  My face.  My hands.  My throat.  I've breathed in all those powdery fumes.  My throat is feeling tight. My head hurts.  I'm thirsty.  So very thirsty.  Do I look pale?  I feel faint.  It hurts when I breathe.  My chest is tight.  I need to sit down.  Maybe lie down for a bit.  Maybe not.  If I fall asleep I might never wake up again.

In my head I began composing letters to my sweet girls telling them how much they were loved by their mother and reminding them that I would watch over them from heaven.  But would I even go to heaven?  I'm pretty much a murderer for releasing toxic chemicals into the environment.  Who knows how many countless others will be harmed by my selfishness and ignorance.  

Please just bury me in a unmarked grave so my corpse cannot be desecrated by those whose loved ones have been hurt by my improper waste disposal.

I finally got up the nerve to talk to my boss about it.  Who knows, I may have dragged some lingering toxicity  with me to work.  He deserves to know that he might be in danger.

I explained the situation.  He rolled his eyes.  "The biggest danger from broken fluorescent tubes is the broken glass.  Just wash your driveway down to make sure all the shards are gone."

But... but... what about the power?  The fumes?  The MERCURY?!

"We used to play with mercury when I was a kid.  If you had a large pool of mercury sitting inside your house and you lived there for 30 years you might get enough exposure to make you sick.  But it would be a gradual deterioration.  Nothing like suddenly getting a headache and sore throat.  Maybe you are just getting a cold."


Oh yeah.  Brett had woken up last night complaining that he didn't feel well.  Oh yeah.  And the baby was sick with a fever on Sunday.  Oh yeah.  And the other girls have had runny noses all week.  Don't you remember wiping them over and over and over?  Oh yeah.

Crisis averted.  I guess I'll live after all.


Brett said...

Crazy you really need one more thing to worry about???

Brad Buscher said...

While compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are more efficient than incandescents, it’s important to remember that they also contain mercury. To prevent mercury vapor exposure, used fluorescent lamps and compact fluorescent lamps should be safely recycled, as exposure to mercury vapors can lead to significant health risks including neurological damage. Despite the potential health issues, fluorescent lamps and CFLs are growing steadily in the industrial, commercial and residential markets. They are four to six times more efficient than incandescent bulbs, offer energy cost savings and deliver a longer working life. In order to safely dispose of and recycle used fluorescent lamps and CFLs, they must be properly packaged in an effective mercury-safe storage or shipping container that includes an adsorbent technology.

A study by Nucon International, Inc., a world-wide leader in providing gas, vapor and liquid phase adsorption solutions for mercury and other contaminants to the nuclear and other industries, found that within mercury-specific packaging with broken lamps inside, vapor levels can reach over 150 to 300 times OSHA’s 8-hour permissible exposure limit. A new, patent-pending adsorbent technology, recently announced at the Air & Waste Management Association’s Conference & Exhibition, can significantly reduce the mercury vapor levels in these storage and recycling packages. Levels were reduced by nearly 60 percent in only 15 minutes and over 95 percent after 12 hours, according to the study. The adsorbent pad is impregnated with powdered, activated carbon and reacted with proprietary inert chemicals, allowing it to effectively capture and reduce the mercury vapor from shattered lamps to a safe level within the shipping and storage package. In addition, the adsorbent can accommodate the high volume of mercury vapor that is released when several or all bulbs in a full package are broken. This provides an added layer of protection against incidental mercury exposure, offering consumers and other handlers a safer way to recycle their used fluorescent lamps and CFLs. A small consumer-size recycling bag, now available, also features this technology and allows people to safely store three to four used lamps at home before taking them to a retailer or municipality that accepts CFLs for recycling.
View a short animated depiction of the adsorption process at

Download a detailed White Paper on this technology at

Purchase consumer CFL recycling bags at