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Mercury in bulbs poses health risks

Children are especially vulnerable to neurotoxin

Children are especially vulnerable to neurotoxin

January 12, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY? Aside from the environmental risks associated with mercury, the chemical also poses health risks to consumers who are exposed to it when a compact fluorescent light bulb breaks, particularly in warm or poorly ventilated indoor spaces, experts say.

There is not much certainty regarding what level of mercury exposure is safe, but it's worth taking precautions, especially when it comes to protecting pets, young children and pregnant women, said Michael Bender, director of the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project.

Mercury is a neurotoxin, and the brains of children are especially vulnerable, Bender said. Children also have a higher respiration rate, and they usually are shorter and closer to the source, causing a higher exposure, he said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, symptoms of mercury exposure include tremors, emotional changes, insomnia, neuromuscular changes (such as weakness and twitching), headaches, disturbances in sensations, changes in nerve responses and performance deficits on tests of cognitive function. At higher exposures, there might be kidney effects, respiratory failure and death.

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Anyone with any question about their exposure to elemental mercury should call a doctor or local health authorities, Bender said.

The Environmental Protection Agency suggests the following procedure for cleaning up and disposing of broken CFL bulbs.

1. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.

2. Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a sealed plastic bag. Use disposable rubber gloves, if available (i.e., do not use bare hands). Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the plastic bag. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

3. Place all cleanup materials in a second sealed plastic bag. Place the first bag in a second sealed plastic bag and put it in the outdoor trash container or in another outdoor protected area for the next normal trash disposal. Bender suggests using a puncture-resistant container such as a jar or Tupperware container with a sealable lid, instead. Wash your hands after disposing of the bag or container.

4. If a fluorescent bulb breaks on a rug or carpet, remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner, following the steps above. Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces 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 two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.

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