Dispose of Fluorescents As If Your Life Depends on It
A few days ago, Joe and I were talking with the manager of a local discount store (part of a national chain) and asked what they did with their spent fluorescent light bulbs. She sheepishly hung her head and said, “Well, I know we should recycle them, but…” Our state doesn’t require that fluorescent bulbs be treated as hazardous wastes, so the store manager isn’t breaking the law. But it was obvious to us that she feels guilty about dumping them in the landfill.
Although the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has included fluorescent bulbs under Universal Waste regulations since 2001. Although EPA considers fluorescent bulbs to be hazardous wastes, their disposal in landfills is permitted. But it’s not the best policy.
Some states have adopted strict regulations regarding fluorescent light bulbs. In California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, fluorescent bulbs are considered hazardous waste. In those states, dumping fluorescent bulbs in the garbage is breaking the law. This generally includes the energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) that have become popular in household fixtures, but you’ll need to check your state and local laws to be sure. You can find a state-by-state list of websites for bulb disposal laws, courtesy of Ellie’s Eco Home Store, on their Light Bulb Recycling website.
EPA recommends recycling all fluorescent bulbs — even the so-called “low-mercury” bulbs — whenever possible. But what if you have no way to safely recycle them? “If your state or local environmental regulatory agency offers no other disposal options except your household garbage, place the fluorescent light bulb in two plastic bags and seal it before putting it into the outside trash, or other protected outside location, for the next normal trash collection,” EPA advises.
Why the precautions? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Research Facility explains, “Elemental (metallic) mercury and all of its compounds are toxic, exposure to excessive levels can permanently damage or fatally injure the brain and kidneys. Elemental mercury can also be absorbed through the skin and cause allergic reactions. Ingestion of inorganic mercury compounds can cause severe renal and gastrointestinal damage.”
Even the small amount of mercury contained in compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) is hazardous to human health. If you happen to break a fluorescent bulb, you’ll need to act quickly and with caution to clean the site without endangering yourself or anyone else. EPA provides thorough instructions for cleaning up a small mercury spill, such as a broken thermometer or a CFL.
The health picture gets a lot worse when we talk about organic compounds of mercury, which is what we ingest when we eat fish that contains mercury. And where does that organic compound of mercury come from? Industrial waste that leaches mercury into the soil; burning coal, wood, and oil as fuel, and incinerating mercury-containing wastes, all of which release mercury into the air. All of these sources of mercury eventually end up in our water, where inorganic mercury is changed into organic compounds, such as methyl mercury.
EPA goes on to say, “Organic compounds of mercury such as methyl mercury are considered the most toxic forms of the element. Exposures to very small amounts of these compounds can result in devastating neurological damage and death. For fetuses, infants and children, the primary health effects of mercury are on neurological development. Even low levels of mercury exposure… result from mother’s consumption methylmercury in dietary sources can adversely affect the brain and nervous system. Impacts on memory, attention, language and other skills have been found in children exposed to moderate levels in the womb.” For a comprehensive list of the dangers of mercury in our environment, read the Mercury Study Report to Congress on EPA’s website.
The point is, once in water, mercury eventually becomes even more dangerous, and one of the ways it gets in water is through improper disposal of mercury-containing light bulbs. You may think, “It’s just one light bulb, what harm can it do if I toss it in the trash?” And your neighbor thinks the same. And so does the guy across the street, and the family down the block, and the folks you know across town… You get the picture. If even a single light bulb is hazardous — and it is — what are the health effects of the bulbs from an entire household? A neighborhood? Your workplace? Or a chain store?
If you have any fluorescent bulbs in your home or business, when they burn out, take them to a responsible recycler. You may be able to return them to the store where you bought them, but if not, check EPA’s bulb recycling map to find what’s available in your state. At the time of this writing, Ikea, Home Depot, and some Ace Hardware stores are accepting used fluorescent bulbs for recycling. (If you go there, consider giving them some of your business; it’s a great service they provide, and by shopping in their stores, your dollars help support it.)
Whatever you do, handle those mercury-containing bulbs as if your life depends on it. In a lot of ways, it does.
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