KANSAS CITY, Missouri - If you're like most people, you now have at least one or two of those squiggly Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs in your home. And you may be buying more soon.
Like it or not, the government is pushing us to purchase more and more CFL's --compact fluorescent lights -- because they save energy.
But do they come with extra risks the stores and government don't want us to know about?
Some homeowners are wondering: Could be also be inviting a risk of explosions, fire, and even mercury poisoning?
Bulb explodes without warning
Tom and Nancy Heim were watching TV recently, when Tom decided to turn on the floor lamp next to his recliner chair.
"I heard this loud pop...I saw what I thought was smoke, coming out o the top of the floor lamp," says Tom.
Nancy suddenly found glass in her lap. She says, "I did not see it. I just heard it, and I noticed i had glass on me."
Their concern. The bulb could have started a fire or exposed them to dangerous mercury vapor.
Risk of explosion or fire
So we checked with the U.S. EPA, and found found some reassuring news.
The EPA says its records show the risk of a bulb exploding is extremely rare. And in most cases it has investigated, the bulb had been damaged at some point, such as having been dropped on the floor.
According to the EPA, it's almost impossible for a CFL bulb to start a fire, as all UL approved bulbs have a safety shutoff fuse in the base. If the glass breaks, the fuse cuts out, and there no more current goes into the bulb.
Is there a risk of mercury poisoning?
But what about the mercury vapor they may have breathed?
Last year, we asked Dr. Kim Dietrich, an Environmental Engineering Professor, to break and test a CFL bulb for mercury. Research Assistant Professor Joo-Youp Lee shattered a bulb inside a sealed bag...then put the bag on a mercury vapor analyzer.
No question, he says, the bulb contained a measurable amount of mercury.
However, Dr. Dietrich says the amount found is minuscule compared to thermometers we used to put in our mouths.
According to Dr. Dietrich, "It would take 100 shattered CFL bulbs to equal the amount of mercury in an older thermometer."
What if a bulb breaks?
Despite that reassuring news, the U.S. EPA has a list of steps you should take if you break a bulb. • The EPA says open a window and ventilate the room for 15 minutes. • Then use cardboard to sweep up the remains of the bulb • Wearing rubber gloves, use a wet paper towel to wipe the area. • Finally, seal it all in a plastic bag, and dispose. • The EPA says do not vacuum the room, or you could spread mercury dust around. The EPA says the amount in one bulb is not enough to create a health hazard.
To prevent problems
To prevent problems, and extend bulb life, the EPA suggests you: • Do not use CFL bulbs in bathrooms, or anywhere they will be turned on and off all day. Frequent powering up and down reduces their life. • Do not use standard CFL's in dimmer switches. Low voltage reduces their life • Three-way lamps are fine, however, as the contacts on the base of CFL bulbs are different from three-way bulbs, and they will not turn on with the low voltage setting. So while a bulb explosion may scare you, it's unlikely it will cause a fire or any real damage.
And despite Internet rumors, a broken bulb will not turn your home into a Hazmat zone.