Broken fluorescents pose minimal risk
I broke a long fluorescent tube in my home. I used a dust broom, vacuum cleaner and damp cloths to try to clean up the glass and white powder. I spent seven hours trying to get all the powder and glass, which was shattered into very fine pieces, but am worried about what might still be on my books, pillows and cushions. How do I clean the pillows and cushions, and what do I do with the broken tube, which I placed in paper and plastic bags? Do I need to be concerned about exposure to the powder?
Answer: At this point, even though you did what you're not supposed to do -- vacuum -- health officials say you don't have to be concerned about any health hazard.
You can dispose of the bagged broken tube and cleanup materials in the trash.
Fluorescent bulbs potentially are hazardous because of the mercury used. When the bulbs break, the mercury is released, making it an inhalation hazard, said Grace Simmons, supervisor of the state Department of Health's Hazardous Waste Section.
Officials warn against using a vacuum cleaner because the mercury can be dispersed into the air. However, the amount of mercury involved in your mishap should not be a cause of concern, according to Health Department environmental toxicologists.
Mercury in fluorescent tubes may run from 4 mg in compact lamps to 20 to 50 mg in traditional long tubes, Simmons said. By comparison, a mercury thermometer contains 500 mg of mercury.
"If a thermometer breaks, we would be concerned about the elemental mercury vaporizing, which is very harmful," she said.
In your case, the good news is that there probably is no concern about mercury exposure.
"Just have good ventilation and dispose of any remaining trash associated with the breakage," Simmons said.
Under state regulations, homeowners can toss the bagged remnants into the trash can.
Simmons suggested wiping any dust left on the books with a wet rag.
It may be "a bit more tricky" dealing with the pillows and cushions, she said. "They may ultimately have to be disposed of unless (you) can get them professionally cleaned."
She provided us with a link to the Health Department's Solid & Hazardous Waste Web site's bulletin on fluorescent bulbs: www.hawaii.gov/health/environmental/waste/ p2wastemin/pdf/FluorescentLampP2web.pdf.
The bulletin notes that when a fluorescent lamp breaks, an estimated 5 percent of the mercury is released into the air and 95 percent remains in the phosphorus powder.
A typical safe cleanup -- for a business -- usually involves trained staff with personal protective equipment, such as gloves and goggles, "careful sweeping," use of wet rags to avoid dust, and opening windows and doors to help disperse of any mercury vapors.
Any used rags, broken glass and loose powder should be placed in a sealed, labeled airtight container and disposed of according to local hazardous-waste laws.
Simmons said that because fluorescent bulbs are considered "universal waste," businesses and commercial entities are allowed to recycle their bulbs "without the full regulatory requirements of a hazardous waste."
That means less restrictive paperwork and storage requirements, as long as they are sending them to a legitimate recycler, she said.
However, homeowners are exempt from hazardous-waste regulations and "are allowed to send their bulbs to the municipal landfill, although we still recommend recycling."
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