Framing the Dialogue

Mad Hatter

First it was lead in paints that was banned.  Owners of older homes that had been decorated with lead-based paint often had a hard time selling their homes unless the paint was removed.  Removal could be costly because many methods to remove the paint caused it to become airborne.  Materials coated with the paint often could not be discarded at landfills because the amount of lead made the waste hazardous.

The next culprit was mercury in paint.  This toxic metal was banned for use in interior paints nearly 20 years ago.  The metal was used in paint to prevent the growth of bacteria.  Anyone that grew up in the sixties or seventies probably played with mercury in science class.  It was not unusual to be allowed to pour it in your hand and move it around.  Remember when thermometers actually had mercury?

You probably know that the “Mad Hatter” in the Alice in Wonderland story is a reference to hatters who used mercury to soften fur for hats.  The mercury was absorbed into their skin and made them mad.  It is nice to have that safe feeling that our government is looking out for us, but I have to wonder if all of the mercury-less paint has anything to do with the increase in mold growing in people’s homes. 

The USEPA has some strict guidelines for how to handle and dispose of mercury:

  • All mercury-containing products or containers of mercury should be placed inside a larger container with a tight fitting lid.
  • Kitty litter or oil-absorbent matter should be placed around the product to protect it from breaking or sudden shocks.
  • Clearly label storage container as “Mercury – DO NOT OPEN.”
  • If you must wait for a hazardous waste collection day, store products safely in their original containers with the labels intact, and keep them out of reach of children and pets.
  • Transport container to a household hazardous collection center in a cardboard box. Secure them so that they do not tip over. This will minimize shifting or sliding during sudden stops or turns.
  • Transport containers in the back of a pick-up truck or in a car trunk. If you must transport in the passenger compartment, make sure there is adequate ventilation

This must be some nasty stuff.  How would you react to a story where you’d be forced to increase the level of mercury in your home?  Some countries have already passed laws requiring its citizens to buy a product that contains mercury…the compact flourescent bulb.  Admittedly each bulb only contains a very small amount of mercury, but I counted the bulbs in my house (I really need a life) and we have around 75 bulbs.  That sounds like a lot, but some kitchen and bedroom lights use multiple bulbs. 

Adding all of the mercury from those bulbs put the amount of mercury in my house at a fairly high level.  I am still ok, because my wife hates them because the light is dim and has a yellow tinge so we have very few in our house.  Even if all of our bulbs were CFLs it would be unlikely that they would all break at once.  If I ever break one of them, their are guidelines for their clean up:

Before Clean-up:  Air Out the Room; Have people and pets leave the room, and don’t let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out, Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more, Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces:  Carefully scoop up glass pieces and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag, Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder, Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag, Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

Disposal of Clean-up Materials:  Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup, Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials, Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

What are the chances that many consumers are going to even read the instructions on proper disposal let alone follow them?  Two chances, slim and none.

Compare and contrast the two methods and you may see that there is not much different.  So CFL bulbs are safe, sort of.  Could there be a scenario where a building has hundreds or even thousands of CFL bulbs and they all break?  Let’s imagine that a building in California had all CFL bulbs and when the next earthquake hits most of the bulbs broke.  What would be the impact of the release of that much mercury?

I love (and by love I mean totally frustrated) by wonks who have a simple answer to everything except that their answer causes another problem.  The next thing you know they’ll be trying to eliminate the coal industry because electricity made from coal isn’t as clean as wind power.

Update – May 5, 2010

A local middle and high school had to be evacuated yesterday.  Nearly 2,000 students, faculty and officials were forced out of the school and sent to the local football field and they were later sent home.  Two students and three custodians had to be decontaminated and hazardous materials responders had to be brought in.

If you read the original post you probably guessed that mercury was somehow involved and it obviously was leaked.  I seems that a student broke…drum roll please…a thermometer.  I bet you thought that the student broke a CFL bulb.

Let’s recap.  A student broke a thermometer, the school had to be evacuated, hazardous materials responders had to be called, five people were “decontaminated,” and 2,000 people had their day upturned.  Did I mention that a student broke a thermometer?

The local news stations had a field day with this one.  Lots of teasers and drama and pictures of emergency response vehicles.  I am sure there were interviews with concerned parents.  Did I mention that a student broke a thermometer? 

My guess is that Pennsylvania lawmakers will take up this serious issue and ban thermometers.

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