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Light Bulbs and Mercury... Can One Exist Without the Other?

In 2012, compact fluorescent light bulbs will be the norm. They use less energy - But their use has also prompted safety concerns and some consumer reluctance.

Shirley McGlone takes a smoke break as she offers her opinion on the new bulbs.

"I think they need to improve the compact fluorescent light bulbs. They don't come on when you turn them on. They take a while to come on and the light's real harsh," says McGlone.

Nancy Roscoe is nearby. She's among those who don't quite mind the light - but she worries that what's inside the compact fluorescent could make her sick.

"They're fine. My only concern about those is the mercury. When they get broke, you know, how you have to handle that. You can get, is that, poisoning?" says Roscoe.

The Environmental Protection Agency lists mercury as a neurotoxin - a substance that could impair the cognitive development of children and infants. In adults, inhalation of mercury vapor could lead to tremors, a reduction in cognitive function and, in large enough doses - acute kidney failure.

But it's all about dosage. There are about 3 mg of mercury in one compact fluorescent. And according to the Department of Labor, a working environment is still considered safe when that small amount of mercury is vaporized in a typical 200-square foot room.

Greg Stein, of the Ohio Department of Health, compares the amount of mercury in a compact fluorescent to what's inside another household item.

"Three to Five milligrams is a very small amount. A typical household fever thermometer contains 500 to 1000 mg of mercury", says Stein.

Stein says when they work properly, the compact fluorescents don't actually emit mercury.

"Functioning normally, they're sealed. Even when the electricity's turned on, it's still sealed," says Stein.

But it doesn't mean that precautions aren't necessary. Pregnant women should be especially cautious and avoid exposure to mercury as much as possible -- which could happen when a bulb breaks.

"The problem with mercury is through inhalation. Mercury vaporizes at room temperature. This happens over a period it can be months if it's not properly cleaned up," says Stein.

Stein encourages consumers to follow clean-up steps outlined by the EPA. The agency advises against using a common clean-up tool.

"First and foremost, never vacuum," says Stein.

A vacuum could increase exposure to the mercury by vaporizing it in the air. Instead, the EPA website recommends immediately leaving the room and letting it air out for 15 minutes. Consumers should then use cardboard to pick up the shards of glass, and a damp cloth to wipe the mercury off the ground - even if it's invisible to the naked eye. The broken remnants and cleaning materials should be sealed in two plastic bags and brought to a local recycling station for proper disposal.

Burned bulbs should also go to proper disposal sites. But David Miller - owner of a True Value in Columbus - doubts many of his customers know about proper disposal methods.

"No. They're not aware of it. Most if the time now, they just throw them in the trash," says Miller.

Sending compact fluorescents to the landfill releases the mercury they contain into the environment. The substance could then leach into the air, water and eventually make its way up the food chain and onto our plates.

It doesn't mean conventional incandescent light bulbs are the most mercury-friendly option either. In fact, they might be worse.

Incandescent bulbs use four times more electricity than do compact fluorescents. And in Ohio, most electricity comes from burning coal - which also releases mercury. The EPA estimates that, when accounting for energy production, it's the incandescent bulb that releases the most mercury.

Yet, David Miller admits mercury is not what most of his customers talk about in his West Broad Street hardware store. For most of them, it's still price that drives the purchase.

"They sell reasonably well. People kinda shy away from them cause they are pricy. But people are starting to realize that the overall cost of ownership is a lot cheaper than a regular incandescent bulb," says Miller.