A twirly mess

Fire in the hole!

Fire in the hole!

Your Auntie Ruth recently spent 10 minutes in a toxic dump … in her living room. She accidentally dropped one of those eco-friendly CFL bulbs on her piano bench, where its top twirl shattered and glass exploded all over the carpet. Auntie Ruth—no ninny—knew not to pick up the glass with her bare hands and that CFLs contain mercury. But she didn’t know, and the bulb’s packaging didn’t tell her, to open the window and get outside for at least 15 minutes, as it turns out the biggest threat from such spillage is inhaling the mercury (it dissipates as a gas). Nor did Auntie know that the broken glass should be picked up and put in a glass jar and sealed. And that disposing that jar in a local dump ain’t easy.

After picking up the glass (plastic bags on her hands) and putting it in a paper bag (didn’t know better), but before vacuuming the carpet (caught a break there), your Aunt R. conferred with a higher source: Google. Googling “CFL,” you get “Canadian Football League,” followed by the Wikipedia entry for “compact fluorescent lamp.” Down in entry 8.1.2, we learn: “The Maine [Department of Environmental Protection] study confirmed that … researchers were unable to remove mercury from carpet, and agitation of carpet—such as by young children playing—creates spikes as high as 25,000 [nanograms per cubic meter] in air close to the carpet, even weeks after the initial breakage.”

Sure, like anybody, Y’Auntie handles Wikipedia with skeptical care. Still—yikes! This is a broken light bulb, not an abandoned gas station. She doesn’t like the idea of wearing a gas mask around the house; it’s uncomfy and not conducive to dining or sleeping in on the weekend. Plus, neighbors would talk. The product’s packaging should have told the consumer how to dispose of broken bulbs. Give it to Auntie straight: She wants environmentalism that promotes earth-friendly practices while respecting intelligence. Nothing in this world is risk-free, and a reasonable risk is one we each have to recognize as such before we take it.

In short, information concerning the dangers of a broken CFL bulb should be as widely known as the benefits of a happy, unbroken CFL, if we are to have a future in which the twirly little white bulb becomes as iconic as a light switch, a TV screen, a steering wheel, the Google logo. Yes, we can.