September 28, 2012 8:22 AM   Subscribe

So my cat just spectacularly broke a CFL lightbulb. I've read the other Asks on this topic, but I still have a few questions.

My cat climbed on top of a desk, and knocked the lamp off. The CFL bulb shattered into a thousand pieces. I didn't know what had happened, so I walked in there and stepped on the shards with my bare freaking feet. I don't believe I was cut, but I was standing on them.

Why did I not call Poison Control or even my doctor? Because I have no phone.

I swept up the shards the best I could (it's a hardwood floor), covered the area in dish soap, and wiped it down with a rag. I disposed of the rag, the dustpan, and the broom. I didn't use gloves, because we don't have any. I didn't even think the air out the room before I put down the soap, but the house is airing out now. When the bulb was broken the air conditioner was off, and the fan in that room was off.

I was able to contain the offending cat to another room before she tromped around in it too much, but not the other cat. And he tromped in it, ran on our bed, ran throughout the house, ran into the bathroom. What am I supposed to do about that? I walked to the fire station around the corner and asked them, and they said "the bulbs have more halogen in them than anything, you should be fine". What.

I cannot take either of the cats to the vet. In theory, I can go to the doctor if I _have to_, but we will have no money left. My husband will end up taking vacation days from work because he won't be able to afford the gas.

I'm getting from the other Asks, that this is probably not a terribly big deal. But I do need to figure out what to do about the cats possibly tracking mercury into our bed, all over the floors, and etc. We can throw out some things, but we are not in a position to throw out all of our bedclothes, and that seems like overkill.

posted by Coatlicue to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Check out these instructions from the EPA.
posted by knz at 8:26 AM on September 28, 2012

I think you'll be fine. Instead of a vacuum, use tape to get all the other powder up.

You don't have to go to the vet or the doctor unless someone is showing signs of something.

Wash the bedclothes.

You're going to be okay.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:50 AM on September 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

And, as an aside for future reference for emergency situations...., "Why did I not call Poison Control or even my doctor? Because I have no phone."

You have a computer. Get a Google Voice number.
posted by HuronBob at 8:55 AM on September 28, 2012

HuronBob: We do have a Google Voice number, but our computer hates our USB microphone right now.
posted by Coatlicue at 9:01 AM on September 28, 2012

Unless you start showing some sort of symptom, you do not need to seek medical attention. Ditto for your cats.

The EPA instructions knz links to above are good for the cleanup. The most important thing right now is to air out the space as much as possible. If you have a fan that fits in the window, you can put that in the room where the bulb broke to exhaust the air.

I work in the environmental industry, and if you check my posting history, you'll find that I'm generally on the more conservative side on these kinds of things. Breaking a CFL is not something to panic about. You're going to be fine, for reals.
posted by pie ninja at 9:05 AM on September 28, 2012

You should be OK as long as you air out the area; however, cute pictures of the cats in question will help MetaFilter be sure.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:26 AM on September 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Thanks for everyone's advice so far, guys!

The two windows in that room are open. We only have ceiling fans, so I turned them on. Hope that was an okay thing to do, because it is coooooold in here now! We don't own a vacuum, so that's not an issue. The room can continue to air out for the rest of the day, as well. And I cleaned my feet and hands the best I can.

Looking at the instructions that knz posted, I have done similar things to what is is listed. Not in the right order, though. I swept and wiped before I started airing things out. I don't see any dust or shards leftover, but I can run tape along the floor if it seems like the right idea.

So the INTERNETS don't think that just washing the bedsheets will remove mercury and etc. So how much of that needs to concern me? Do I need to mop the freaking floors or risk my cats mauling me while I bathe them?

And now for a Serious Moment: I am in CBT right now for obsessive-compulsive disorder. I am just starting to make real progress, and the idea of my entire house being contaminated with mercury honestly makes me want to cry. I want to control this lightbulb crap, but I do NOT want to feed the OCD. I've come really far, and have to figure out this situation without relapsing.

infinity waltz, how remiss of me to omit pictures of the cats!

Here is the old lady Agnes, who broke the lamp. She is still confined to a separate room, and is chilling.

Here is the maniac Indigo, who danced in the lamp shards and ran a marathon around the house. He is not confinable to a room. I tried.
posted by Coatlicue at 9:43 AM on September 28, 2012

OMG, what beautiful cats!

Here is some anecdata: My folks grew up in Pittsburgh. When my dad was young he and his friends would go to Westinghouse and play with those long flourecent light bulbs like they were swords. They'd be out in dumpsters behind the building and they'd do Zorro and whatnot, breaking them all over the damn place.

My Dad is 74 now, so I think one little bulb won't be that big a deal.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:10 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here is the maniac Indigo, who danced in the lamp shards and ran a marathon around the house.

He look like he know he done bad.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:24 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Indigo don't do nothing but bad, lately. There's a reason we call him the Gray Bastard.
posted by Coatlicue at 10:33 AM on September 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've got anxiety issues so I can understand the worry.

CFLs have a very very tiny amount of mercury. I mean, tiny. Less than 1/100th of the amount in the thermometers I used to break on purpose just so I could roll the Hg around on my desk in school. Just follow the instructions about keeping your windows open and turning off central air/heat the next few times you sweep up or clean that room and you'll be fine.
posted by xyzzy at 10:36 AM on September 28, 2012

I posted one of the previous "I broke a CFL" questions. I followed the very sensible calm advice I got there (clean up with wet cloth, don't vacuum, air out the room) and it's now many years later. Nothing bad happened then, and nothing bad has happened as a result over the subsequent years.

You have done the right things.
-Wash the sheets by themselves; it can't hurt and it may help, and it will make you feel better.
-Maybe try to "rinse" the cat's feet by holding him and running a damp paper towel under his feet/grabbing the feet gently with wet paper towel.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:04 AM on September 28, 2012

Crusty old engineer here, 2nding xyzzy... one CFL simply isn't a big deal atall, IMO. The mercury is a VERY tiny amount; the phosphor coating inside the tube is a bit toxic, but again, one CFL is small potatoes. Lobstermitten has the right advice, too.
posted by drhydro at 11:16 AM on September 28, 2012

Indigo just got more treats than he has ever been entitled to, to con him into sitting still long enough to wipe his feet down. Poor little bastard.

I'm getting okay with this issue, with the exception that I stood on the broken bulb parts for a few seconds before I realized what happened. There are no visible cuts on my feet; it's just unsettling.

Sorry for threadsitting.
posted by Coatlicue at 11:17 AM on September 28, 2012

There are 5 milligrams of mercury in the average CFL; this is much less than it used to be, and lower-wattage smaller bulbs have less as well. Mercury is part of a chemical reaction over the life of the bulb, so by the time the bulb burns out it's a component in an inert molecule instead of the free easily-vaporized easily absorbed atomic form. The chances that your bulb contained a full 5mg are low. Additionally, you swept up the pieces and threw them away, so there's very little of it that's unaccounted for. Any white dust you see is not mercury but a phosphor (like in glow-in-the-dark stickers - inert, but don't eat it). There's a lot less mercury than phosphor. If the cat didn't track phosphor powder or glass shards, she didn't spread the mercury that much either.

According to guidelines for eating tuna, mercury content in tuna is generally less than 0.2ppm (parts per million), which means 0.2mg in 1kg of fish.

1 CFL = 5mg Hg = ~10kg tuna = ~25 weeks eating 1 lb tuna per week, the recommended limit.
So if you had eaten the light bulb, that's not more mercury than the body can normally process in 6 months. Given that you only touched the pieces and breathed the air as it slowly evaporated, there's really nothing to worry about.
posted by aimedwander at 12:04 PM on September 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your feet have nice thick skin precisely because it provides extra protection from the environment. If you have to touch things like this, they're definitely your best bet. I just looked it up, and I'm not going to link to try to help you stay out of that rabbit hole, but science tells me that, of the extremely small amount you possibly could have been exposed to (see aimedwander's analysis), even the skin on your arm would capture and shed the majority. And your foot-skin is lots tougher. Same goes for the kitty, who is indeed beautiful and reminds me of our grey beast Connor, menace of security deposits. :)
posted by teremala at 2:02 PM on September 28, 2012

An answer from the OCD angle here! I totally understand the 'but what if it's a real danger and not just the OCD?' aspect of this (and all OCD-affected situations). If it was me, I'd say do the standard safety things that people are suggesting (which it sounds like you've already done) and then no more. Any 'what if...' and 'but I didn't do them in the correct order' etc thoughts that you might get after that then just try to sit with them and not respond to them by cleaning more. You've got lots of people in this thread saying you'll probably be absolutely fine, and I think any more 'but what if...' thoughts that you might have after this will be your brain looking for the certainty that it's impossible to actually get. It could actually be seen as a good opportunity to face the anxiety and sit with it rather than trying to get rid of it by cleaning etc, but I know that's easier said than done! I know it's extra hard when something knocks you suddenly like this, but hopefully when it's passed you will feel even better about your recovery after dealing with such a big challenge. Good luck!
posted by amerrydance at 2:47 PM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

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