The message seems to be everywhere these days: "Change a light, change the world."
Environmental groups, utilities, government agencies, retailers -- even Oprah Winfrey -- all have promoted the switch to compact fluorescent lights as an easy way to save money, reduce energy consumption and limit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
But another message has been nearly lost in all the enthusiasm: These bulbs contain mercury, a highly toxic heavy metal, and have to be disposed of carefully, especially if they're broken.
As of Jan. 1, New Hampshire bans the disposal of any "mercury-added" product, including spent CFLs and "button-cell" batteries, in landfills, transfer stations or incinerators. So now, instead of throwing those lightbulbs in your household trash, you'll have to recycle them, either through your municipality or a participating retailer.
And if you break one, you need to handle it as hazardous waste.
Whatever you do, don't vacuum a broken bulb, advises Pamela Schnepper, a toxicologist in the environmental health program at the Department of Environmental Services. "That will spread it through the house, it will put it in the air, and then the vacuum cleaner will be contaminated."
Instead, environmental experts advise, ventilate the room and leave it for 15 minutes. The safest approach is to wear gloves, and use cardboard and duct tape to pick up small pieces and powder, seal everything in a screw-top jar, and store the jar in a safe place until you can dispose of it at a hazardous waste collection.
feb3 compact lights 270px (SHAWNE K. WICKHAM)
Linda Farruggio of LeBlanc's Hardware holds a pair of compact fluorescent light bulbs. (SHAWNE K. WICKHAM)
The risk of mercury exposure from one broken lightbulb is low, Schnepper stressed. "All we want to do is make sure people know to clean it up properly."
She said DES plans to update its cleanup and disposal guidelines after the upcoming release of a Maine study about the mercury risk from broken CFLs.
Noting her agency bases its mercury advisories on the most sensitive populations, Schnepper said she expects DES will advise keeping pregnant women and young children -- the developing nervous system is most vulnerable to the harmful effects of mercury exposure -- out of the area while a broken bulb is cleaned up.
Stephanie D'Agostino, supervisor of the pollution prevention section at DES, has worked on mercury reduction for a decade. She cited "disconnect" between researchers working on mercury reduction and those pushing energy efficiency and said her agency recently sent municipalities information packets about the new law for mercury-containing products.
A typical household CFL contains about 5 mg of mercury (about the size of a ballpoint pen's tip). To put that in perspective, an old-fashioned mercury thermometer -- the kind you can't even buy anymore -- contains about 500 mg, according to the EPA.
Experts point out that compact fluorescents, because they use less electricity and last longer than incandescent lightbulbs, reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. But they say it's important not to put the mercury back into the waste stream when the bulbs eventually do burn out or break.
It only takes a small amount of mercury to harm the environment, according to D'Agostino. One gram "is enough to contaminate a 20-acre lake to the point where you would have to issue a fish consumption advisory."
D'Agostino said CFLs are now the "largest source of mercury in the solid waste stream."
"It used to be batteries, but since 1996, mercury in alkaline batteries has been banned ... In the meantime, we're all using more and more fluorescent lights, so that's causing there to be a higher level of disposal."
To address that, the state partnered with more than two dozen True Value hardware stores to recycle spent CFLs, and DES is now setting up a similar program with Ace Hardware stores. D'Agostino said she's also hoping some of the big-box stores, such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart, that promoted the sale of CFLs will start recycling them.
Currently, about 60 municipal facilities accept unbroken CFLs for recycling.
The new state law banning disposal of CFLs and other mercury-added products does not specify penalties for violators. However, it comes under the state's solid waste law, RSA 149-M, which authorizes fines and even criminal charges.
Scott Bradford, manager of the Peterborough Recycling Center, said his facility has been recycling fluorescent lamps for years. He said some residents recently have brought in brand-new CFLs to recycle after learning they contain mercury.
Bradford contends CFLs need better product labeling. "I definitely think on the side of the box in big print there should be some kind of a warning, not so much as a deterrent but just an informative piece on there that says, 'Hey if you do buy this, be wary.' "
Jennifer Dolin is environmental marketing manager for Osram Sylvania, which has three manufacturing plants in New Hampshire. (None make lightbulbs; those are all made in China, she said.)
Informing the public about proper handling of CFLs should be a "shared responsibility" among manufacturers, retailers, utilities and government agencies, Dolin said. She said that as Sylvania's packaging is updated, it will include a link to the company's Web site, where such information is posted.
Julia Dundorf, co-director of the New Hampshire Carbon Coalition, said she doesn't want the mercury issue to discourage people from buying CFLs. But, she said, "I think it is critical that at the point of sale there is more information for the public."
The issue is about to get even more pressing.
The energy bill Congress passed late last year included new efficiency standards for lightbulbs that effectively phase out most incandescent bulbs by 2012. (There are a few exceptions, such as the low-watt bulbs used in appliances.)
Osram Sylvania's Dolin said manufacturers are working on new products that will meet those standards, including some that won't contain mercury.
For now, D'Agostino suggests consumers should make choices based on their own comfort levels, perhaps avoiding using CFLs in a child's room or an area where they are more likely to break. "I don't think there's a huge harm done if you don't put them in every single light socket in the house," she said.
What to do
The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has a list of municipalities and hardware stores that accept unbroken compact fluorescent lights for recycling. DES also provides instructions for cleaning up and disposing of a broken CFL.
ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the federal Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Energy to promote energy efficiency. For information about compact fluorescent lights and the "Change a Light, Change the World" campaign, go to energystar.gov.