If you use fluorescent bulbs, says EPA, you will need an evacuation plan in the event of a break. "Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out," says EPA's directive. "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."
When you can safely return, says EPA, start throwing away your belongings. "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 the bedding should be thrown away," says the directive.
Never clean any washable thing -- no matter how costly or sentimentally valued -- if it has been near a broken fluorescent bulb. "Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage," says the directive.
Imagine: The mercury in these bulbs is so bad it is bad for your sewage.
But what if a fluorescent bulb breaks on the wall-to-wall carpet where your toddler crawls? What then? Suddenly, it is OK to use a vacuum on a mercury spill.
"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," says the directive. "Use sticky 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."
But don't throw that sealed bag away. It may be too toxic for your garbage can. "Some states do not allow such trash disposal," says EPA's directive. "Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken out to a local recycling center."
Apparently, some light bulbs escaped the standards in the 2007 law. So, last week, President Obama's Energy Department closed the loophole by issuing new efficiency regulations targeted at these bulbs that will take effect in 2012.
In a June 29 speech, Obama described the move as part of an energy efficiency initiative that "will create jobs in the short run and save money and reduce dangerous emissions in the long run."
After reading Obama's speech, I drove over to the local big-box hardware store and studied the products in the light-bulb aisle. The store stocked exactly one brand of compact fluorescent bulb for conventional light fixtures. The 75-watt version cost $3.47 per bulb -- compared to .22 cents for a 75-watt incandescent bulb.
On the back of the fluorescent-bulb package -- just below a warning about the mercury content -- the following words were inscribed: "Made in China."
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