How Bad is Mercury ?

bulb.jpgPretty bad of course. Otherwise, we wouldn’t all be hearing about it all the time. But how bad really ? The reason I am asking is because two days ago, on our way out the door, my 2-year old son knocked over a standing lamp with energy efficient light bulbs (compact fluorescent lightbulbs or CFL) and one of the bulbs broke. Hmm. If you’ve read anything about these light bulbs (and believe me, I have) you will know that not only are they very efficient (although some folks seem to hate them because of the short delay before they shine full blast) but they are loaded with mercury. And mercury – short Hg (from hydrargyrum – latin for liquid silver, aka quicksilver) – is bad for you !

As of last year, CFL must not contain more than 5 mg of HG. That’s not much. Supposedly only a fraction of the mercury that would be released if you broke a mercury thermometer and much less than that contained in dental amalgams that so many people still have in their mouths. So I cleaned up the broken glass while airing out the living room. But of course, since we were in a hurry, I used the shop vac to suck up the broken glass and only read later on the internet not to vaccum. (I’ve since cleaned the shop vac.)

The health effects of mercury are nasty even if nowadays one is unlikely to get a huge dose of pure mercury. But the little doses are those that add up because you don’t suspect them to matter, right ? Ever since I became a father, those little step-by-step effects have me more concerned than I used to be. If little children are exposed to small doses early on, there is no telling how this might effect them down the road.

The silver lining here is that apparently, elemental mercury is not as bad as methyl mercury from coal-fired power plants. Apparently, there is less mercury in CFL, than is released to the atmosphere in the production of one incandescent bulb. Sounds like a trade-off. Methyl mercury mimics a ‘bodily’ protein and is readily absorbed by the body. In that way, it can even be passed from mother to child. This article here talks about how you can match a mother with her child based on their shared pollutant footprint – gross !

We must have about 20-30 of these light bulbs in our house. Every time an incandescent bites the dust, we replace it with a CFL. I have no doubt that most people who are buying CFLs are completely oblivious to the mercury inside and the need to properly dispose of old CFLs. It makes you wonder if we’re creating a huge mercury mess by selling 100s of millions of these bulbs most of which will end up at the landfill – broken or not. Again, it seems hard to judge the actual danger to your health and how to weigh it against the environmental benefits. To me, that’s what living in the 21st century is often all about.


One Response to “How Bad is Mercury ?”

  1. […] Work Environment The other day, I posted about the dangers from mercury in broken low-energy light bulbs (CFLs). Today, I found that maybe I’m much closer to another […]

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