Edison's light bulb on its way out, but consumers have practical and safety concerns

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 16 2011 7:00 p.m. MST

One of the biggest barriers against widespread acceptance of the new bulbs has been a relatively high purchase price. But lately, that disadvantage has disappeared for many shoppers. Prices for compact fluorescent bulbs have dropped drastically, partly because Rocky Mountain Power pays subsidies to manufacturers to bring down the price.

"Helping customers be more energy efficient is a resource just like a power plant, " said Rocky Mountain Power's Dave Eskelsen. "And it's less expensive than building a new power plant. "

Many shoppers worry that the compact fluorescent bulbs are also a health threat because they contain tiny amounts of toxic mercury.

Experts generally argue that people should be aware, but not worried, about the mercury. Contrary to a myth circulating on the Internet, a broken compact fluorescent bulb does not require a homeowner to hire an expensive hazardous waste cleanup crew. "It's important it be cleaned up and disposed of appropriately," said Neil Taylor, an environmental scientist for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. But homeowners themselves can do an acceptable cleanup, Taylor said, "and then there shouldn't be a health hazard."

The mercury does create extra hassles in the clean-up process. The US Environmental Protection Agency has issued a detailed three-page procedure for cleaning up a broken fluorescent bulb.

The EPA recommends good ventilation to let mercury vapors out of the house. Larger broken pieces can be picked up by hand and placed in a plastic bag. Smaller pieces can be scraped up with a piece of cardboard or stiff paper. Smaller pieces, as well as dust, and the mercury itself should be picked up with a sticky piece of duct tape, used much like a blotter on soiled areas of carpet, flooring and tabletops. "The mercury will stick to the duct tape and then you can just put that in the plastic bag as well," Taylor said.

Experts say a vacuum should never be used to clean up mercury. "A vacuum cleaner cannot handle the mercury," Taylor said. "It passes right through the vacuum cleaner and is spread throughout the house. So the worst thing you can do is vacuum mercury."

Final cleanup is done with a wet paper towel. After the cleanup procedure, the EPA recommends leaving windows open and fans running. "The room should be ventilated for several hours," Taylor said.

In some states, laws require recycling of used or broken fluorescent bulbs or disposal at certified hazardous waste facilities. Most experts recommend that procedure to keep mercury out of landfills. But Utah's laws are looser than some other states. "Because of the small amount of mercury that's in the bulb," Taylor said, "it's not considered a significant hazard. So you can just place it in the regular trash."

e-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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