Large fluorescent tube broken. How do I ensure I don't die of mercury poisoning?
May 4, 2008 11:07 PM   Subscribe

Fluorescent tube (large one) broke in kitchen. I am freaking out now and didn't follow proper procedures to clean it up. Am I going to get sick and die of mercury poisoning?

I read on here recently of a woman who broke a compact fluorescent tube in her bedroom. Well tonight I ended up breaking one of the large fluorescent tubes in my kitchen. This light hadn't been working (it had burned out) and I was trying to replace it.

It shattered everywhere: in my sink, in my cats bowls, some went on the carpet. Most ended up on the hard kitchen floor. I freaked out and didn't follow proper procedures (vent area, use gloves, etc). I just started cleaning it up with a hand-held broom. Also, when attempting to leave the area, I stepped on some of the glass (it was unavoidable) and small shards went into my foot.

I opened the windows but my apartment gets poor ventilation and there are no windows directly in the kitchen.

I ended up sweeping up all the large glass pieces and removing them from the house. I threw away the cats dishes, all the dirty dishes that had been in the sink at the time, mopped the floor, and took tape to the carpet that is immediately in front of the kitchen. I threw away the broom I used to sweep up the glass as well. I also took some tape to the floor after I was done mopping to help ensure I removed all glass.

This was a Sylvania Fluorescent 40W tube. I am incredibly worried about the mercury exposure and if I did an adequate job of cleaning. Some of the glass fell down the garbage disposal (little pieces of it). Also, I am worried that I may have gotten little shards of the glass in my foot. Should I go to the emergency room? I don't know if I am making too big of a deal out of this.

I did not notice any powdery substance from the broken tube or glass, nor did I see any visible signs of solid mercury. This light hadn't been operational in weeks, so it hadn't been on recently so I don't think the mercury would be in a gaseous state.

I am freaking out here and don't know what else to do to ensure my pets are okay and I am okay. Any advice? Have I created a hazardous living environment?
posted by rainygrl716 to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Go to a well ventilated area & take a deep breath.

I think you're okay. Plus that's for CF bulbs. I don't think there's mercury poisoning danger with regular fluorescent bulbs. When I was a kid, my brothers and I used to climb up on the roof and play Zeus, throwing spent fluorescent tubes on the sidewalk below. We turned out fine.

posted by felix betachat at 11:37 PM on May 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

"A CFL containing 5 mg of mercury breaks in your child’s bedroom that has a volume of about 25 m3 (which corresponds to a medium sized bedroom). The entire 5 mg of mercury vaporizes immediately (an unlikely occurrence), resulting in an airborne mercury concentration in this room of 0.2 mg/m3. This concentration will decrease with time, as air in the room leaves and is replaced by air from outside or from a different room. As a result, concentrations of mercury in the room will likely approach zero after about an hour or so." — felix's link

Interestingly enough, that theoretical concentration of 0.2 mg/m3 is twice the OSHA ceiling for mercury air concentration.

I don't think there's mercury poisoning danger with regular fluorescent bulbs.

I don't think this is true. I think most fluorescent lights depend on mercury, not just the new CFL bulbs. Not to be an alarmist, but I wouldn't quickly dismiss the problem either. I would personally try to ventilate the area very well for several hours, and also try to clean the area where the break occurred very carefully.

I did not notice any powdery substance from the broken tube or glass, nor did I see any visible signs of solid mercury.

Mercury's melting point is about -38F, so you're not going to encounter it in a solid state in most environments. :) It normally appears as a silvery liquid. Also, if the tube only has 5mg (not sure about this), that's a vanishingly small amount, as far as being able to see it. It can easily be absorbed into your skin, so be careful with the cleanup effort.

Also, I'll add to felix's reassurance that I've been around broken fluorescent tubes before, and I'm relatively normal still.
posted by knave at 12:47 AM on May 5, 2008

I probably wasn't too clear: It does sound like you've done a good job removing the material, and I personally wouldn't be very worried about it.
posted by knave at 12:52 AM on May 5, 2008

No, no, no. You are fine, really. You'd have to break, like thousands to even start to worry. I would say I've cleaned up many broken ones over the past 30 years, and I have, but those who know me would not consider that exactly comforting. The US kinda over does it with the warnings. Relax, really.
posted by dawson at 12:53 AM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

In my non-medical opinion, I think you're overreacting. Your parents and grandparents used to push mercury around with their finger, and (I'm assuming) they turned out fine.

My roommate in college broke a pressure cuff in his truck and mercury leaked all over the place. A couple days later he finally got some powder to clean it up with... in the mean time, he just drove around like that. They tested his blood for mercury poisoning and he came back clean. That was 7 years ago, and last I checked he's alive and healthy (probably healthier than I am, FWIW).

So anecdotally, the amount you exposed yourself to is very small. I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by sbutler at 1:25 AM on May 5, 2008

Also, my obligatory wikipedia links. First, it appears fluorescent lights use elementary mercury or mercury vapor. So this should be comforting:

Quicksilver (liquid metallic mercury) is poorly absorbed by ingestion and skin contact. It is hazardous primarily due to its potential to release mercury vapour. Animal data indicate that less than 0.01% of ingested mercury is absorbed through the intact gastrointestinal tract; though it may not be true for individuals suffering from ileus. Cases of systemic toxicity from accidental swallowing are rare, and attempted suicide via intravenous injection does not appear to result in systemic toxicity.[14] Though not studied quantitatively, the physical properties of liquid elemental mercury limit its absorption through intact skin and in light of its very low absorption rate from the gastrointestinal tract, skin absorption would not be high.[15] Some mercury vapour is absorbed dermally but uptake by this route is only approximately 1% of that by inhalation.[16]

In humans, approximately 80% of inhaled mercury vapour is absorbed via the respiratory tract where it enters the circulatory system and is distributed throughout the body.[17] Chronic exposure by inhalation, even at low concentrations in the range 0.7–42 μg/m3, has been shown in case control studies to cause effects such as tremors, impaired cognitive skills, and sleep disturbance in workers.[18][19]

I highlighted the parts that I think are important. The seriously deadly stuff is organic mercury compounds, which is why you have to watch out for fish. But that's not a concern in this case.
posted by sbutler at 1:51 AM on May 5, 2008

Don't sweat the mercury vapor. Just ventilate as best you can. The shards in your foot will have phosphors of various kinds on them, and the cuts may be slow to heal, but unless you've massively lacerated yourself with them I wouldn't worry too much about those either.

Just try not to do this every day.
posted by flabdablet at 2:55 AM on May 5, 2008

I realize this is purely anecdotal, but I have personally played with open mercury (as in, open, in my hands) several times when I was younger and foolisher, and I'm basically fine. It's surprisingly dense stuff.

Did you vacuum as well?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:36 AM on May 5, 2008

Vacuuming is supposed to be bad, as it throws the stuff up into the air.
It sounds like you've done a good job (based on what I read when I broke the CF bulb in my bedroom); try to ventilate the room as best you can.
Have you gotten the shards out of your foot and cleaned the wounds with soap?
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:20 AM on May 5, 2008

Had a summer job 20 years ago which basically entailed smashing fluorescent tubes in a smallish room. I'm still here.

An improperly disposed-of CFL still emits far less mercury than would be emitted by a coal plant to generate the light to run incandescents for the same amount of time.
posted by scruss at 4:36 AM on May 5, 2008

I am regularly surprised at how worried people get over this stuff.
OH&S levels are for ongoing exposure (mad hatter syndrome) not momentary.
It used to be routine to have chemistry students hold raw mercury in their hands to appreciate its interesting properties, and I would be amazed if there was a documented injury or fatality. Admittedly, a spill is now taken quite seriously, but that is to prevent substantial ongoing exposure, not 10 minutes from a broken light bulb.
You and your pets will be fine.
posted by bystander at 5:21 AM on May 5, 2008

Per my DH, who is an environmental and regulatory specialist, if it was a green-tipped bulb, it has minimal mercury. Silver-tipped bulbs have an amount of mercury that's higher than the allowed regulatory amount, but unless you swallow it you should be fine.

He does recommend that you chuck the cats' bowls, though.
posted by tigerjade at 5:26 AM on May 5, 2008

It's all about dosage. OSHA develops standards that presume a 40 hour/week exposure. Your exposure was for an hour or two, so even if it was 10 or 100 times the OSHA level you have nothing to worry about. Now, if you broke a bulb a day for a year...

Mercury is everywhere. It's in the fish you eat, in the milk you drink, in the marshes and wetlands you stomped around in as a kid. Take steps to minimize your exposure, the same way you do with the sun, and don't sweat it.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 5:54 AM on May 5, 2008

Here's another guy who, with friends, used piles of these things as lightsabres as a 9 year old, "use the force" KERSHATTER etc... worry not.
posted by merocet at 6:07 AM on May 5, 2008

My father used to play with elemental mercury as a kid, and he's lasted a good 40 years since. I remember breaking mercury thermometers when I was at school, and the teacher just cleaning it up with papers towels, and I'm not dead yet. I really wouldn't worry about it - stress kills millions more than mercury!
posted by prentiz at 6:15 AM on May 5, 2008

I know people who (as a recreational activity) smashed burned-out fluorescent tubes over each other, just for the hell of it.

This was years ago, and they are -- surprisingly -- all still alive.

I'm not condoning this activity. YouTube seems to confirm that it's pretty common, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:08 AM on May 5, 2008

I, too, have smashed fluorescent bulbs as a kid. Whether or not I turned out normal is up for debate, but the mercury wasn't a contributing factor. ;)

My only concern here would be shards of glass. You've got some in your foot. I wouldn't treat it any differently than, say, glass from a broken window or bottle, but seek whatever medical care is appropriate for that. It sounds painful to be walking around with shards of glass in your foot.

Others have suggested it's a bad idea, but if I were you (and I'm not), I'd probably vacuum anyway, to make sure I didn't step in shards of glass in the carpet a week down the road. Even if we momentarily assumed that the mercury in a fluorescent bulb would kill you (it seems like the consensus here is that it won't even hurt you), it sounds like not much of the glass wound up in your carpet. (You're going to have to vacuum the carpet eventually anyway....)
posted by fogster at 9:30 AM on May 5, 2008

I am less sanguine about the harmlessness of mercury vapor than your other Answerers-- we do have a tremendous rise (6-fold in some areas in some reports) in cases of autism and autistic spectrum disorders to explain, after all, and recent studies continue to implicate exposures to mercury, though not necessarily from thimerosal in vaccines. Elemental mercury is very poorly absorbed from the GI tract, by the way, so there is little danger from swallowing the contents of an old-style fever thermometer, but it is readily taken up via the lungs in vapor form.

I don't think you have that much to worry about, however. I've seen claims that mercury in fluorescent tubes is absorbed by the phosphors over time, and that breaking an old tube is therefore a lot less dangerous than breaking a new one, but not from definitive sources.

If you are really worried, there are mercury-indicating powders that turn colors in the presence of mercury vapor available for ~$40 a bottle. That website does not say how sensitive it is, and I wouldn't buy it unless they can assure you at a minimum it would show positive after a week of exposure to one tenth of the OSHA limit referred to above.

Sulfur powder absorbs both liquid mercury and mercury vapor, and used to be (pre-9/11) available from compounding pharmacies as flowers of sulfur for about $15 a pound, and may be still for all I know, but they will at least ask you why you want it because it can be used in explosives. You could set out a tray of it to absorb any stray vapor, but as I write, it occurs to me you might be able to do something a lot more effective with it. You could put a new disposable bag in your vacuum cleaner, suck up a few ounces of it to coat the bag liberally, and then vacuum over all the cracks in your kitchen where little droplets of mercury might have lodged with a crevice tool. Droplets of mercury evaporate completely eventually, so this procedure becomes increasingly pointless with the passage of time. Somewhere there must be a table describing how long they last depending on diameter, but I didn't find it.
posted by jamjam at 10:06 AM on May 5, 2008

There's nothing wrong with mercury. As in the liquid metal.

The thing about mercury that is bad is that it is a constituent of compounds that are terribly, frighteningly dangerous. But those are industrial accident kinds of things, not light bulbs. I wouldn't eat it or huff it, however.

Interesting note about mercury- there's more spewed out by the coal you burn running the bulb than it contains.
posted by gjc at 7:30 PM on May 5, 2008

Interesting note about mercury- there's more spewed out by the coal you burn running the bulb than it contains.

No way.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:25 PM on May 6, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you all for the advice.

Unfortunately we had another incident so my husband and I are probably living in a huge toxic mercury filled space right now. I broke the fluorescent light when I was taking out the old one. Tonight we got a brand new tube and my darling husband, saying he didn't trust me with it, decided he would put it in. Guess what happened? Yep, he didn't secure it properly, it fell and shattered all over the kitchen again.

We bought the low mercury light, luckily, which supposedly has 80% less mercury than a regular light, so I don't know. Hopefully that means we aren't going to die or something terrible. I give up at this point and just had to laugh about it. I'm going to call someone to help fix the light because we are obviously incredibly incompetent and going to end up seriously hurt at this point.

Interesting enough, when I broke the very old tube, there was no powdery residue. The brand new tube, however, left powder everywhere. Clean up, because I am anal and obviously a worrywart, took over two hours. I lost tons of more dishes and a bunch of pots and pans that were exposed to the residue. Replacing a light has been an expensive endeavor for us.

Anyway, I wanted to update you all and hopefully you all got a laugh out of our incompetence. At this point I just can't even be freaked out because of how ridiculous the situation is.
posted by rainygrl716 at 11:35 PM on May 6, 2008

The white powder is a phosphor coating that is applied to the interior of the glass. The phosphors help provide continuous, white light, rather than the sheer flickering of the fluorescent gas. As far as I know, the white stuff is pretty harmless. Like I said earlier, mercury is a silver liquid, not a white powder.

Sorry to hear about your troubles with these lamps!
posted by knave at 5:02 AM on May 7, 2008

If you are still worried about the mercury exposure, one way to get rid of toxins in your body is to just sweat it out.

A few years ago, I had mercury and lead toxicity, and had to do some chelation therapy. Wiki link:

At the end of my treatments, my NP recommended sweating as a way to finish clearing it out of my body.

The best way: exercise.
Also, -hot baths with epsom salts and baking soda added.

You may be perfectly fine, but if you are worried, these therapies are harmless, and of course, exercise is really good for you anyway.
posted by annsunny at 6:29 PM on June 7, 2008

« Older Will I be able to move to Brooklyn in September?   |   What ad campaigns have been adapted into feature... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.