Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

The next asbestos: How to protect your facility from mercury contamination

September 19, 2010

If you use compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs in your facility, then mercury contamination should be on your mind.

Mercury is a hazardous waste found in some very unlikely places.

From seafood to thermometers, dental fillings, batteries and fluorescent light bulbs, the threat of mercury poisoning lurks around every corner.

The dangers of mercury poisoning can be severe; mercury contamination in the environment has become a hot topic among many policy makers.

CFL bulbs
CFL bulbs are energy-efficient light bulbs, but little emphasis is placed on how to properly dispose of them.

Mercury is the key factor that makes these bulbs energy efficient and is also the reason to be extremely cautious.

Why mercury is toxic
The dangers of mercury toxicity have been known for centuries.

Research over the last few decades has shown that even low-level exposures to mercury can have toxic effects because it is a neurotoxin and can negatively impact brain development and performance.

Exposure to mercury has been linked to neurobehavioral problems and lower intelligence scores in children whose mothers have been exposed to contaminated seafood.

Many researchers are also convinced that mercury can contribute to developmental disabilities such as autism in children.

Mercury toxicity is a serious problem because it does not degrade in the environment and is difficult to remove.

Again, it is highly toxic, particularly to children and the materializing fetus where it interferes with development, particularly the maturation process of the brain.

Whatever form mercury takes — elemental, inorganic or organic — it is toxic and there is no truly effective treatment once it gets into the body.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) indicates that mercury, depending on its chemical form, can affect the immune system, alter genetic and enzyme systems and damage the nervous system, among a slew of other disorders.

From energy saving to environment saving
The amount of mercury found in CFL bulbs is not typically considered dangerous, but it''s important to understand the risks involved.

CFLs also have great qualities and right now they are considered the best option.

According to Energy Star, if every American home replaced just one incandescent light bulb with a CFL bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, save more than $600 million in annual energy costs and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars.

These bulbs use about 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer.

While research shows that CFL bulbs are helpful to the environment on one level, it is also critical to articulate how proper disposal of the bulbs prevents mercury contamination.

For example, most light bulbs break before they get to the landfill or they break in garbage trucks, exposing workers to dangerous levels of mercury.

Mercury can be a highly toxic element and research has shown that it can be a serious threat to the health of people and wildlife even in places that are not obviously polluted.

According to the EPA, mercury in the air may settle into bodies of water and affect water quality.

Airborne mercury can fall to the ground in the form of raindrops, dust or simply due to gravity.

Once the mercury falls, it can end up in streams, lakes or estuaries where it can harm fish and other animals.

As a responsible facility service provider, it''s critical to consider the ways in which you can prevent pollution of any kind, including mercury contamination.

Preventing mercury contamination
Some counties, cities and states have outlawed throwing compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs into the trash.

But, the EPA has yet to regulate it.

The best way to reduce mercury contamination is to recycle CFL bulbs.

Currently, there is not a national recycling program for spent CFLs.

Keep in mind that curbside recycling isn''t effective because CFLs are too fragile and may break during pickup.

Some companies provide CFL pickup and deliver the used bulbs to one of the three recycling centers in the country.

It is suggested to put used CFLs in a sealed plastic bag and store them in a padded box away from the sales floor until you can find a convenient recycling program in your area.

If you have a broken CFL bulb in your facility, please read the cleanup instructions on Energy Star''s website.

Have everyone leave the area and open a window if possible.

Turn off central air conditioning or heating and read the guidelines for proper cleanup.

A world of good comes from properly disposing CFL bulbs or recycling them.

If we continue to keep abreast of the dangers associated with the mercury found in CFL bulbs, then we can more intelligently combat the problem.

Be cautious when removing the bulb from its packaging, installing it or replacing it.

And, be sure to always screw and unscrew the bulb by its base, not the glass; never forcefully twist the CFL into a light socket.

The EPA recommends taking full advantage of available local recycling options for CFLs.

Currently, the EPA is working with CFL manufacturers and major U.S. retailers to expand recycling and disposal options.

In the meantime, you can contact your local municipal solid waste agency or go to www.epa.gov/bulbrecycling to research recycling options in your area.


Ray McLaughlin, president of McLaughlin Electric, implemented a free program for his clients that collects CFLs, HID lamps and fluorescent lamps in the Maryland and DC areas and delivers them to recycling centers. Contact Ray at 410-242-3200 or ray@mclaughlinelectric.com.