Join 3,376 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Broken CFL in 2-year-old's room
February 11, 2010 11:35 AM   Subscribe

Okay, need some help regarding a broken CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) in my 2-year-old son's room. I've looked through a couple of similar questions here, but this situation is a little different so I'm hoping for more specific insight. I've also already seen a lot of varying information relating to proper clean-up procedures, potential long-term contamination and adverse health effects, etc. I really need to know what I should be concerned about with regard to my son's health.

Here's what happened. About a week ago, I was changing a burned out bulb in my son's room which, of course, turned out to be a CFL. It had been burned out for about a week, so right off, I don't know how the bulb being 'dead' affects this whole scenario. We usually use his lamp in his room and not the overhead light, hence why it took a me a few days to change it out. As I was unscrewing it, it just dropped through my grasp and hit the carpet below, then bounced/rolled about a foot and a half toward one corner of the room where it came to rest. I heard a slight 'pop' noise as it impacted the carpet, but the bulb did NOT shatter or break into a multitude of pieces. In fact, it had no more than a small through-and-through hole in it (about half the size of a dime)...almost looked like it had been shot with a BB gun and didn't shatter. You could place a straw through it. Thus, there was no evidence of any phosphor powder having 'spilled' out onto the floor. I don't know how the phosphor would spill, but that seems to be the biggest concern with all of the cleanup instructions I've seen. I'm assuming that it is bound to the inside of the glass and only releases when the glass shatters?

Knowing they contain mercury, I quickly got down, grabbed the bulb and carried it quickly to the kitchen where I placed it into a plastic ziplock bag, sealed it and took it outside into the garage to take for recycling later. Now, I know I should have taken the bag to the room and sealed it there before walking through the house, but that's hindsight now. My wife and son had just gone into our bedroom to take a nap, so I closed the door to our bedroom (which is directly across the hall from my son's room, the door to which is still open at this point). I then went into the room where the bulb broke, cracked the window and turned on our attic fan. We have an older home which has an attic fan in the hallway, again directly between the door to our bedroom and the door to my son's room. It generates a ton of suction and I've used it with great success to clear smoke out of the kitchen on the other end of the house after burning something in the oven. My thought was that it would suck out, forcefully so, any mercury vapor in the room. I assume that it did. Unfortunately, I forgot to shut down the central heat while I did this, but I know the attic fans pulls MUCH harder than the central heat return. I initially started looking for the two, small round pieces of glass from the bulb on the carpet. Unfortunately, this meant my face was at carpet level for a couple of minutes just after the bulb broke. Depending on how much vapor the attic fan had pulled out of the room by this point, I may or may not have been breathing a good bit of mercury vapor.

After not finding the glass pieces initially, I left the room for about 20 minutes and began searching for cleanup directions. I needed to figure out how to get those two pieces of glass up. I discovered the whole duct-tape, index card, DON'T vacuum thing like everyone else. Unfortunately, there was no glass or powder (visible, anyway) for me to clean up. There appeared to be nothing on the carpet. The directions further say to throw away clothing that came in direct contact with the mercury (the phosphor powder I guess?), which didn't apply (or didn't seem to). Some directions I found said you could vacuum if you had to, but then to throw out your vacuum bag or clean out the dustcup if you did. I called poison control and they said, given the situation, it sounded like I could go ahead and vacuum...just to ventilate the room and wear a mask while I did. So after about 30 minutes, I vacuumed the room, attic fan still sucking away and me wearing a mask. I left the room again and continued to let the attic fan pull fresh air from the window and suck it all up through the roof for about a total of 2 hours or so. I did, by the way, find the larger piece of glass from the hole in the bulb. It was in the vacuum dustcup. I can only assume the smaller circle of glass also came up.

So now, I'm paranoid about putting our son back in the room and not knowing if any of the powder did get into the carpet and could be still evaporating. Again, I don't think any powder separated from the bulb, but I just don't KNOW. He hasn't been back in the room since this happened. I threw all of his bedding in the wash immediately, even though only the vapors could have touched it. I left the window open with the ceiling fan on and a fan in the window blowing air out of the room for four days and vacuumed a second time during that period.

Sorry for the long-winded backstory, but what can I do? Should I be concerned? I'm not worried about me, but my son, again, is only 2 and I'm not sure how even a small bit of mercury vapor could impact him if he goes back to sleeping in the room with ANY level of mercury present. Additionally, his stuffed animals that were in his crib when all this happened would have been exposed to the vapor also. I can't wash those and he's really attached to a couple of them.

Are they safe for him to have now? Should I throw them out? Is the room safe for him? Should I wipe down all hard surfaces in the room?

HELP!


*Lord, I now HATE CFLs....*
posted by S1C EM to Health & Fitness (24 answers total)
 
Why on earth are you not calling poison control back and asking them this question? Way, way, infinitely more reliable source than any comments you will get here.
posted by brainmouse at 11:50 AM on February 11, 2010


Because poison control's answer was that it should be okay (but the lady did not sound entirely confident with her answer). That said, she wasn't sure how the vapors might affect the safety of things like stuffed animals. This is a lot more detail than they are accustomed to with regard to these things. It's not like my child just drank a gallon of liquid plumber. They don't seem to be as informed about CFLs. You might be surprised by the professional knowledge that some people who frequent sites like this actually have. The more information, the better...provided you can separate the facts from the opinions.
posted by S1C EM at 11:55 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Holy cow!
Maybe I'll die young for it, but I wouldn't spend that much time worrying or cleaning.
With the sort of things we're exposed to unawares every day, I hardly think you're placing yourself or your child in any sort of measurable (or measurably significant) harm. If someone breaks a CFl in the office, or a store, we don't evacuate. Someone mops or sweeps and calls it good. Happens everywhere.
posted by terpia at 12:01 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Previously.
posted by gudrun at 12:01 PM on February 11, 2010


A CFL bulb contains about as much mercury as somewhere around 3-12 cans of tuna (depending on the tuna and the bulb) and fish mercury is in a much more dangerous organic compound. Air the room out for a few hours and it should be fine. The over kill approach would be to air out the whole house for a few days.

"I left the window open with the ceiling fan on and a fan in the window blowing air out of the room for four days and vacuumed a second time during that period."

So you're done.

PS: unless the mask you were using was rated for non-organic metallic vapours it probably had no effect.
posted by Mitheral at 12:06 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm not an expert, but I am the very cautious mother of a three year old. I personally think you're overthinking the whole thing. Read this from Snopes. The Maine study on broken bulbs is on-line here. Yes, the vapor can be a problem, but you've been venting now for four days. That's far past the "short period" of ventilation the study recommends. This information recommends venting for "at least two days" after a spill from something like a thermometer, which has much, much more mercury in it than your bulb.

Calling poison control (or your state EPA) is the best idea, but were it me I frankly wouldn't hesitate to let my son back into the room. Over the course of his childhood he's going to be exposed to a LOT more environmental mercury than was in that one bulb. You could also call his pediatrician if you want to talk about "long term effects". But, honestly - its fine, and your child will be fine. Let him go back to his room and play with his toys.
posted by anastasiav at 12:07 PM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Have you read Wiki's section on broken CFLs?
The Maine DEP study also confirmed that, despite following EPA best-practice cleanup guidelines on broken CFLs, researchers were unable to remove mercury from carpet, and agitation of the carpet—such as by young children playing—created spikes as high as 25,000 ng/m3 in air close to the carpet, even weeks after the initial breakage.
I think, based on all the measures you've already taken and the length of the question, replacing the carpet (and padding!) in the room is going to be the only thing that gives you peace of mind.
posted by 6550 at 12:08 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


You are fine. I broke a compact florescent ages ago. I am still fine. YOU will still be fine. Tell your son if he finds any piece of broken glass or if that if he breaks glass, ever, that he's to not touch it and come get you/an adult and you'll clean it up. You will be fine.
posted by anaelith at 12:09 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are some situations where you have to look at the probability of risk against the remote possibility of risk. I assume you let your son play outside (solar radiation), are going to let him go to school someday (childhood diseases), ultimately drive a car (drunk drivers), and possibly shop at WalMart. If you look at the amount of mercury that might have been in this bulb, the infinitesimal percentage of it that might have come out when it broke, the amount, in the form of a gas that might have escaped into the atmosphere, the amount that remained after you ran the fans and ran around the house, it probably resulted in less lung and systemic damage to your son than occurred by being locked in that closed room during all of that time. The carpet was out-gassing, the room was filling up with CO2, who knows what else? Sixty years ago, when I was in grammar school, kids brought mercury to school to play with. We all passed it around and giggled about how it rolled around in our hands. This was not good! But we survived.

Here is my point. You have done all you can in this situation. You will not be able to protect your son against any number of exposures to danger for the next sixty years. At this point you need to realize that he is in much less danger than all of the children of your generation, let alone all of the children of my generation. I survived. You survived. He'll survive just fine. He is in much greater danger from being sneezed on at the store, than he is from returning to his room.
posted by Old Geezer at 12:13 PM on February 11, 2010


The Maine DEP study also confirmed that, despite following EPA best-practice cleanup guidelines on broken CFLs, researchers were unable to remove mercury from carpet, and agitation of the carpet—such as by young children playing—created spikes as high as 25,000 ng/m3 in air close to the carpet, even weeks after the initial breakage.

6550, I've seen this information before which is what triggered my concern. The fact that even after cleaning the carpet properly in this study that the mercury was STILL pervasive is what makes me think on this. By the way, for those comparing this to fish/organic mercury, it's important to note that the WORST (most harmful) way of absorbing elemental mercury is by inhalation, not ingestion. It isn't quite the same thing.

Again, bear in mind that I'm not concerned about me. I've been in and out of the room a few times since this. And I'm thinking the room is fine. I'm a little concerned about my son's items that were in the room and came in contact with the vapor.
posted by S1C EM at 12:19 PM on February 11, 2010


Your breakage is closer to a best-case scenario than a worst-case scenario. There is no substantial residue of mercury in your son's room. There are not significant levels of mercury in your home. Virtually all of the very small amount of mercury contained in the bulb remained in the bulb. You can stop worrying about this and your son can go back into his room. We are all being exposed to much more mercury on a consistent basis by its incredible ubiquity as an environmental pollutant than any amount of random fluorescent light breakage in the home. The mercury issue in CFLs is exaggerated and the safety procedures for clean-up, which you pretty much adhered to, are purposely far in excess of what is really necessary for personal safety. See here, here, here.
posted by nanojath at 12:20 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just of note, the one reason I believe myself to be worried for nothing is that the bulb DID NOT SHATTER. I really don't think any solid particles, glass, phosphor powder, etc. actually came into contact with the carpet. There was none visible, but it's also a light colored carpet. Otherwise, the bulb was intact, aside from the two small holes, and most (if not all) exposure would have been to the vapor/gas itself.
posted by S1C EM at 12:24 PM on February 11, 2010


When I was a kid, the best thing that we ever found in the back room of the science lab at the middle school was a quart jar full of mercury..

when we were bored we would get out a handful and hold it, throw it, roll it, cool stuff.

we're all still alive... and the brain damage is minimal.

You've probably done all you can short of burning the house down...
posted by HuronBob at 12:26 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think, based on all the measures you've already taken and the length of the question, replacing the carpet (and padding!) in the room is going to be the only thing that gives you peace of mind.

Are you kidding? Replacing the carpet?

the one reason I believe myself to be worried for nothing is that the bulb DID NOT SHATTER.

I shattered... and I mean shattered a CFL in the bedroom in my new place right after I moved in, while I was in the middle of painting. I was painting the trim with eggshell finish and I didn't have any left, so if I stopped to clean up the CFL I would have had to buy more. So I finished painting the window trim before I cleaned up the CFL. With a broom and a plastic bag. Without gloves. And then I went right back to painting.

Seriously, you've already gone above and beyond. Forget about it and never think about it again.

I've said this before, but here it is again: Remember those mercury fever thermometers we all used to use? That people would stick in their kids mouths? Those contained something like ONE THOUSAND TIMES as much mercury as a CFL. And they would break all the time. All the time!

Forget about it. Never think about it again.
posted by Justinian at 1:05 PM on February 11, 2010


I'm sorry, but when I was a kid we used to break open thermometers and roll the mercury balls around in our hands.

You guys are going to be fine. Forget about it.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:17 PM on February 11, 2010


Nthing just being done with the worry.

If your child ever suffers actual negative side effects that can be traced back to this bulb breakage, YOU CAN HAVE MY SON. He's a good kid, so it's win-win for you.

In all seriousness, compared to any background levels of lead, mercury and weird off-gassing from plastics in your house, this is nothing. He could've broken the bulb open, breathed the contents immediately, and it wouldn't have caused a statistically significant amount of harm. Really. I _promise_. A broken CFL is safer than a medium-rare hamburger or a trip around the block in a Volvo.

The only people for whom it's an issue are those who deal with mercury all the time. In the past, I've seen toxic waste removal folks gear up to take care of buckets of busted fluorescent tubes, but they're exposed to this stuff all day long. Now I work at a large research hospital with hazmat people who handle REALLY nasty stuff all day long, and they just put on gloves for this sort of thing. If they aren't worrying about it, you shouldn't. There's no way a one time exposure to a busted CFL will hurt you.
posted by paanta at 1:47 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I appreciate everyone's responses. Thank so much. It does help me to feel better about it.

Since no one yet covered the matter, what about the stuffed animals? You're instructed to wash clothes that come in contact with the vapors. I can't wash these stuffed animals. Are these things okay?
posted by S1C EM at 2:03 PM on February 11, 2010


Read the 3rd response down (search for mercury) at dan's site. (Paging dansdata). The (small) amount of mercury vapor has already left the building. days ago.
posted by defcom1 at 2:10 PM on February 11, 2010


Mercury vapor is bad for people. New carpet offgasses lots of nasty chemicals. Peanut mold is toxic, and you can get food poisoning from burgers. There are many safety worries. You've used reasonable caution thus far. Shampoo the carpet and let it go.

Worry about the big dangers. Wear seat belts, wear a helmet while bicycling, and get way more exercise. Lack of exercise is killing Americans faster than most other stuff, and it's preventable.
posted by theora55 at 2:16 PM on February 11, 2010


The bulb did not break on the stuffed animals, and you aired the room well. They will be fine.
posted by gudrun at 2:39 PM on February 11, 2010


This is a lot more detail than they are accustomed to with regard to these things.

This is an important piece of information. Interpreting it correctly will bring you great peace of mind. The EPA has a list of actions to take if you break a CFL bulb, and it looks like you did everything right.

A single CFL bulb contains about 5 milligrams of mercury. This will almost all be vapor in a brand-new bulb; over the life of the bulb, it will migrate into the phosphor and glass. OSHA allows a maximum of 0.1 milligrams of mercury per cubic meter of workplace air, averaged over an 8-hour workday. After ventilating the room and cleaning up the broken bulb, the stuffed animals probably weren't even exposed to an amount of mercury that would get you in trouble if they were people. It's even less likely that they've absorbed a dangerous amount.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 3:56 PM on February 11, 2010


Since no one yet covered the matter, what about the stuffed animals? You're instructed to wash clothes that come in contact with the vapors. I can't wash these stuffed animals. Are these things okay?

I think I wasn't clear enough.

Don't worry about this for one second more. You're finished worrying about. It's over and you should never think of it again.
posted by Justinian at 4:09 PM on February 11, 2010


A single CFL bulb contains about 5 milligrams of mercury. This will almost all be vapor in a brand-new bulb; over the life of the bulb, it will migrate into the phosphor and glass.

haltingproblemsolved, if what you say here is correct, this may be key. Recall that this bulb burned out. I don't know off-hand how long it had been in the fixture. I want to say only a year or so, but could have been longer. It was in a ceiling fan where it had no way to burn out other than on its own. That said, it would seem that in this instance, much of the mercury vapor may have already been absorbed into the phosphor and glass coating. Thank you for that tidbit.

And Justinian, you are correct. Time to be done worrying, I think. I feel a lot better at this point. =)
posted by S1C EM at 6:13 PM on February 11, 2010


That said, it would seem that in this instance, much of the mercury vapor may have already been absorbed into the phosphor and glass coating.

Hmm, I'm not sure which situation would have been better. On the one hand, vapor would have been basically gone once you turned on the attic fan; on the other hand, essentially no dust seems to have been released from the bulb. Justinian's answer is still the most appropriate.

I am not a chemical safety dude, I am not your chemical safety dude.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 6:33 PM on February 11, 2010


« Older Is there any way to verify tra...   |  Serious question, women of Ask... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.