How to deal with chemical warfare in my apartment building?
August 25, 2009 2:28 PM   Subscribe

Someone balanced a compact fluorescent lightbulb on my doorknob so that it would break inside my apartment when I opened the door. Can I do anything about this? Am I overreacting?

I live in an apartment in a small building (9 units) in a major city. Sometime last night between 10 PM and 8 AM someone balanced a compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) on the doorknob of the external door of my apartment; the door opens inwards, so when I opened the door to leave this morning, the bulb was pulled into my unit and shattered (luckily not on my foot). Just so we're all on the same page here, note that CFLs contain a not insignificant amount of mercury, and require special disposal procedures.

I don't have any kind of relationship with the other tenants in the building so I really don't think this can be chalked up to "pranking" or anything like that. Also, there are no children or teens in the building -- as far as I can tell, at 21 I'm the youngest tenant. Normally I would say "wtf" and move on, but it upsets me greatly that now there's mercury in my apartment. I did my best to clean everything up (unfortunately in my haste I used both a broom and a vacuum, the two ways you are never supposed to clean up mercury, I learned later), but the fact remains that someone introduced a dangerous chemical into my home. Furthermore, since I can't see my doorknob from inside the apartment, there's nothing to stop whoever did this from doing it again.

What would you do in this situation? Should I tell my landlord or the property managers? Put a note on my door saying, I don't know, "dont put shit on my doorknob"? I don't even know. I'm completely flummoxed.
posted by telegraph to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
First off, that's messed up. Furthermore, it could qualify as reckless endangerment or assault with a deadly weapon.

If it happens again, I'd say preserve whatever's left so the police can try to fingerprint it. Also, ask management if there's any surveillance cameras with pertinent footage.
posted by dualityofmind at 2:35 PM on August 25, 2009

Same place as your previous question? Knowing that it is or is not might help people answer (speculate?)...
posted by Perplexity at 2:40 PM on August 25, 2009

I would report it to both the landlord and the property managers now, not because they can necessarily do anything about it but so that you have a paper trail.

You can report it to the police for the same reason, if you feel like that's appropriate.

I don't think leaving a note on the door is a good idea.

It's also possible this was an accident. Are those kinds of lights used in the hallway outside your door? Maybe someone from the maintenance dept was being careless and set it on your doorknob during a bulb change for lack of somewhere else to put it besides the floor and forgot?
posted by juliplease at 2:44 PM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

This suggests that you're probably ok on the mercury exposure. I assume you found the EPA guidelines for dealing with a broken CFL.

And yeah, if your previous question is relevant, I'd wonder whether your landlord wasn't behind this, since you've been a "difficult" tenant for asking for the place to be maintained even to code.

You need to get out of this place, soon, and you might need some legal advice here. Do not get into a low level confrontation yourself with a property owner or agent willing to use intimidation tactics, if there is any chance that's what this is.

The two questions taken together give off a really bad vibe that should cause you to evaluate your safety.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:50 PM on August 25, 2009

Notify the owner immediately. In a professional manner (low-key wording, letter or email. etc.)

FWIW - I don't think it is an act of terrorism. Most people don't know how fucking uncool CFL bulbs are. (eco-friendly, my ass! hate hate them.)

My first thought is a mentally ill or misguided tenant looking to give you some sort of "message." Are you loud? Maybe with the TV, friends over, or music?? Does some misguided person want you to be more "eco-friendly"? Did someone mistake your door for a neighbor's? You don't know.

Wait to see what the owner and manager have to say.

(No note on the door. BTW. I can't see what purpose that might serve.)

Get back to us about your Landlord's response. The mercury thing is uncool - but I bet even the owner doesn't know what/if his responsibility is in your situation (chemical contamination?)

I'm more interested if the building has a history of weird occurrences, and if the owner shares that info with you. If they have a problem tenant, but no proof this person harasses neighbors, you might have to wait and see.
posted by jbenben at 2:53 PM on August 25, 2009

That's very weird, and I know how distressing it is to try to clean up a broken CFL bulb, not knowing if you've gotten all the stuff. In case it helps, here's my previous question about how bad it is when one of these bulbs breaks - answerers there seemed to think it was bad, but not horrible, deadly bad. So, at least on the "how much danger am I in" issue, you may be able to relax a bit. Clean with a wet cloth, change out your vacuum bag, keep your windows open for a while. Most of the mercury is already gone, if the answerers in my question are correct.

As for the "what was it doing on my doorknob" issue, that is altogether bizarre. Best guess would be somehow it was a careless mistake or a one-time weird prank, since nobody seems to have a motive. I would tell your landlord/super (and tell them about the mercury, many people don't realize) and then wait to see if anything else weird happens. I think police would be overkill unless you have some lead as to who might have done it, or if there's someone who would wish you ill.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:54 PM on August 25, 2009

I once dropped an old mercury thermometer on carpeting. Called Poison Control. They said to leave my window open overnight and run a penny over the carpet... apparently mercury is attracted to the penny and will pick it up.
posted by IndigoRain at 2:54 PM on August 25, 2009

Apparently liquid mercury - as in a thermometer - and the dust/gas kind in the CFLs are different. So the penny trick may not work on the CFL.

(Also I had missed the connection about your jerk landlords. If this is a possible product of that dispute, I think it's not out of place to talk to the police.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:58 PM on August 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all of your quick responses. It is indeed the same apartment, but since then everything has been brought up to code and all of the necessary repairs have been made -- I am no longer considering breaking my lease or moving out until next year.

LobsterMitten, the answers to your previous question have certainly made me feel better. When I got to work after cleaning it up with a broom and vacuum and saw the EPA guidelines that say "Never clean up mercury with a broom and vacuum" I almost had a heart attack.

I might have suspected ill will from the landlord, but he is elderly and finds it very difficult and time consuming to climb the stairs to my apartment (that's why I deal almost exclusively with the property managers instead). I'm going to put in a call to the property manager now... I'm sure their response will be something like "So what? What can we do about that?" but I will report back.
posted by telegraph at 3:04 PM on August 25, 2009

Kick your door before you open it.
posted by Pecinpah at 3:05 PM on August 25, 2009 [7 favorites]

Thanks dualityofmind!!!!

Your previous ask.

Owner is a slumlord. Management company is shady. No worries.

I still think this might be some weirdo neighbor with the lightbulb sitch (as there is little oversight in your building, and bad situations tend to escalate when no one is actively minding the property...) but there is an outside chance owner is "encouraging" you to leave.

How do you and your roommates want to handle this?

I'm sure you have some serious rent protections via local and state laws. But it might be more trouble than it is worth.

Easiest suggestion is to document, letters, and then negotiate two or three month's free rent while you guys look for a new place.

The peeling paint + historic building scenario from your previous post makes lead paint a big big problem for the owner. Plus all the other habitable repair requirements. You are inconvenienced now, but in a great position from a negotiation standpoint.

posted by jbenben at 3:08 PM on August 25, 2009

Shite. You replied while I was typing!

Refined answer, I'm going with weirdo neighbor and no one actively minding the building (unless serious complaints are lodged) for the win!

Old buildings have interesting environments. Glad to hear previous issues were resolved!
posted by jbenben at 3:12 PM on August 25, 2009

Response by poster: One more piggyback question: the vacuum I so unwisely wielded against the mercury was a small, bagless dustbuster. Do I have to just chuck it now?
posted by telegraph at 3:12 PM on August 25, 2009

If it's any consolation, there are enough people who don't know that CFLs contain mercury that the odds of (a) some malicious person knowing and (b) them not caring if they release some mercury and (c) them doing this on purpose because they assume YOU know... it all seems like kind of tight odds.

Breaking a CFL certainly won't actually hurt you in any short-term measurable way (even if it had fallen on your foot, you probably wouldn't have cut yourself) so the "threat" would be psychological rather than physical, and I just doubt someone would make that threat on purpose. Unless there's some weirdo who you think might be mad about your energy consumption, specifically. But those weirdos usually wouldn't want to release mercury into the environment. It just doesn't hang together very well as an act of threat, in my opinion- too many obscure conditions must apply for it to be effective. More likely to me, someone had a bulb with them and laid it down for a sec on your doorknob (tying shoe?) and forgot it.

The problem with the vacuum is that the hot vacuum air vaporizes and spreads the mercury vapor out the exhaust pipe of the vacuum, right? Not sure how hot a dustbuster runs. A wet cloth or some baby wipes, thoroughly wiping out the interior (outdoors, with glove and proper disposal in plastic for the wipes) would probably be your friend if you choose to keep it. For peace of mind, is a new $50 vacuum worth it to you?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:30 PM on August 25, 2009

My gut says this is a person changing a bulb, not knowing how to properly dispose of the old bulb (there are warnings all over those boxes) and so deciding throwing it on someone's doorknob would be funny.
posted by davejay at 4:18 PM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Twenty bucks says it was one of the property managers or one of the management company's maintenance employees that was responsible for fixing/replacing/cleaning whatever it was they did to alleviate the problem from your previous AskMe.

It's unlikely they were trying to poison you. More likely they just wanted to be pains and make you clean up all the broken glass.

Types like this don't tend to be terribly smart. If anything, because of their stupid antic you now have environmental cause for non-payment. You now have mercury in a public area of your building. That's not in the same category as "dirty floors" or "fucked-up windows." That is an environmental hazard that must be properly cleaned. Furthermore, there will need to be measurements by specialists to ensure that the apartment is safe and habitable afterwords.

All that stuff costs a lot of money.

Now, naturally you wouldn't be the one to have to foot the bill since it was not your fault. Technically, if the bulb was balanced on your door, that means it was in the hall. That's not your apartment. But if it's your only means of egress out of the apartment, I think you (or a reasonably competent lawyer) could raise a very, very big stink if they were so inclined.

I wonder if they know that? I wonder if anyone's told the management company that its employees are in the habit of making their apartments uninhabitable?

Not that I'm recommending that particular course of action, mind you. I'm just staying, you might want to mention to them if they can't behave like grown-ups, things could go from nice to not-very-nice rather quickly. Remind them that you appreciate the work that was done to resolve your former dispute, and would now kindly appreciate it if their employees left you the fuck alone.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:45 PM on August 25, 2009

That's assuming they did it, of course.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:46 PM on August 25, 2009

I may have missed something here, but I'm not generally immediately looking at the doorknob on the opposite side when I'm opening a door inwards. Are you sure that it was balanced on your doorknob to begin with?

I don't know what your doorknob looks like (never thought I'd say that) and I've never had any such fascination with trying to balance a CFL on one, but with that huge of a timeframe with which it could have taken place and the uniqueness of the predicament, it seems like it may have taken awhile for the suspect to have balanced it there, possibly making some noise someone in your apartment would have heard or over the hours it was sitting there it would have shaken off due to any sort of vibrations in the area -- especially you walking up to the door itself.

.. and as much as I agree that someone may want to get back at you for the work you made them do, I somehow doubt this person came up with a cute little scheme like this, thought it was brilliant, went through the trouble of doing it and then went to celebrate with a beer and a "ha-HA, take THAT telegraph!"
posted by june made him a gemini at 5:20 PM on August 25, 2009

I find it hard to imagine a scenario where you turn the doorknob then open the door inward in such a way that the bulb would land in your apartment. Maybe I've lived in old buildings with jiggly handles enough that this could never happen in my world. And this has happened to you how many times?
posted by JJ86 at 6:17 PM on August 25, 2009

It could have been the kind of doorknob that's a horizontal handle.
posted by onshi at 6:21 PM on August 25, 2009

4 milligrams of mercury in a CFL. There are probably better ways to spend your time than to be worried about this.
posted by trevyn at 6:23 PM on August 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

My first thought was a maintenance crew was int he building to do a lot of different jobs and propped the lightbulb against your doorknob so that it wouldn't fall over, but with the intention of picking it up when they left. Then they forgot.

Could that be the case, maybe? Sorry I know nothing about the mercury situation.
posted by Kloryne at 7:17 PM on August 25, 2009

Is this the same kind of lightbulb used in the hallway? Because it just seems really farfetched that this was done as some kind of threat.

A prank, I could see, though it's a weird one.

But the most likely explanation seems like someone setting it there while they were up a ladder changing the bulb, or while they were folding up the ladder when they were done, and then forgetting to take it with them when they left.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:23 PM on August 25, 2009

Response by poster: Okay slow down guys. My rhetoric about 'chemical warfare' was kind of a joke -- I really don't think this is a "threat" or retaliation or anything like that. At worst I think it's a stupid prank and at best it's the work of an absent minded maintenance man, but either way, I'd like to find out so that it doesn't happen again.

Regarding the mechanics of the doorknob, it probably helps to note that the door itself doesn't latch, only the deadbolts -- so the knob never turns. That's why the bulb was already inside the apartment when it fell, as opposed to falling in the hallway when I would normally have turned the knob to get out. The whole "balanced on the knob" idea wouldn't have jumped out at me immediately either, but my roommate was the victim of a similar prank (a cup of coffee balanced on the knob) during college.

Yes, yes, I know, it's a pretty shitty apartment.
posted by telegraph at 8:35 PM on August 25, 2009

Might I suggest a more benign explanation?

Perhaps the maintenance person took the old CFL bulb out of a nearby light fixture, came down off the ladder, looked for a place to put the bulb and put it on your doorknob, got a cell phone call while folding the ladder, and forgot about the bulb?

I mean, it's possible.
posted by the_W at 1:37 AM on August 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

I'd say a repairman put it there and forgot to remove it.
posted by indienial at 3:32 AM on August 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

You probably get more mercury exposure driving next to a coal fired electric plant or eating tunafish. Mercury itself isn't all that dangerous, its danger appears when it is one of the various possible awful chemical compounds that mercury can become.
posted by gjc at 6:18 AM on August 26, 2009

Nthing the "probably not a prank" vibe going here. This just sounds like carelessness.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:36 AM on August 26, 2009

took the old CFL bulb out of a nearby light fixture

That should be easy enough to check to see if the hallway lights are CFL. My guess is that they are, just because apartment owners are cheap and those lights run all night.
posted by smackfu at 6:42 AM on August 26, 2009

The likelihood of it happening again assuming it was a simple accident are unlikely. As a prank it takes a huge amount of planning and foresight and knowledge which makes it unlikely. There are simpler and more devastating pranks that can be played.

If you are paranoid of it happening again get one of those childproof knob covers which can be found for a couple bucks at Target or Kmart. You can modify it easily to prevent something being balanced on it without damaging the knob.
posted by JJ86 at 7:13 AM on August 26, 2009

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