MacDoc and Inventory pointed me to Ian Wishart’s Investigate piece on mercury in compact fluorescent lamps because I might find it “informative”.
It was. I have discovered for myself that Wishart’s account of the Maine incident is distorted and that one can never take Wishart at face value.
Wishart outlines “the official NZ Government position” and then pronounces grandly, “Now let’s examine the reality.”
Okay, I say, let’s do a sampling of Wishart’s “reality”.
Wishart features the story of Brandy Bridges — who Wishart tells us is a “mother” not once but twice, and calls “Brandy”, presumably in order to elicit our sympathy. Ms Bridges broke a CFL and called the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, who:
“suggested she call in a hazardous waste crew. When the hazard contractor quoted US$2,000 to clean the bedroom, Bridges decided simply to seal off the room and make her daughter sleep elsewhere in the house while the issue was sorted out.”
Wishart went to the trouble of interviewing Ms Bridges, presumably because we might learn something from her experience. How much we can learn from someone who merely broke a CFL and discovered that the Maine DEP didn’t really know what to do is questionable, but never mind. (Remember, Maine is a very small state in population terms, 40th in size, with fewer than 1,300,000 inhabitants. Its environmental protection agency could not be expected to be one of the best resourced in the Union, though I’m sure they do a fine job with what they’ve got.)
Anyway, we read that at first the Maine DEP recommended that the floor be professionally cleaned, but that on learning the cost Ms Bridges went to the “papers” with the story, and the Maine DEP changed their advice so that broken CFLs could be cleaned by householders “with just paper and duct tape”
But Ms Bridges was taking no chances, sealed the room and had her daughter sleep elsewhere. “And then the DEP offered to come back out and remove the carpet for me. They removed the carpet, re-tested everything and sealed everything in containers and disposed of it as hazardous waste.”
Sounds like serious stuff! And as told by the individual involved to our intrepid reporter, who presumably used directory assistance to find her number. But had Wishart also ventured onto the Maine DEP website, he might have found their account of the events (also in pdf), and been able to provide more detail:
The Maine DEP says that it:
“… has extensive experience with other types of mercury spills, but did not have experience with the mercury levels that might occur from a CFL breaking on carpet. In addition to evaluating the levels in the home, the Department planned to use this breakage event as a means of gathering information to better respond to future events.”
So, the Department’s actions were driven by a desire to learn more, and not due to the incredible danger posed.
We also learn that, “The carpet, squares of multi colored carpet, was planned for removal as part of an intended renovation.” Wishart dwells on the removal of carpet.
Maine DEP also gives us a better understanding than Wishart [edit: in the online version -- see Wishart's comment below] of the significance on the 300 ng/m3 guide:
“The Department responders work under a guidance value of 300 nanograms per cubic meter (ng/m3) for mercury. If readings are 300 ng/m3 or less, the area is considered to not require any additional actions and no additional clean up advice is given. In situations with values over 300 ng/m3, the Department responder consults with the State Toxicologist for a more refined evaluation.”
And what did they find (albeit two days after the event, and after the area had been cleaned)? Although in all other parts of the house mercury levels were well below 300 ng/m3, in an area of carpet the size of a dinner plate, the reading was 1,939 ng/m3, more or less at the surface.
Then it gets interesting. The Maine DEP’s account:
“The homeowner expressed particular nervousness about exposures to mercury even in low numbers. Based on that concern, the responder explained two ways to minimize exposures to mercury: one way was to wear respiratory protection and another way was to hire a clean-up contractor.
“Since the homeowner did not have any respirator protection, the responder referred her to a commercial clean-up contractor. The responder further suggested that the homeowner talk with their homeowner’s insurance company to see if her policy would cover the cost of a professional clean-up contractor.”
Note the bit about, “particular nervousness about exposures to mercury even in low numbers.” Giving rise to the suggestions about what to do if you’re going to be particularly nervous about this. And, after getting a quote for $2,000 from a professional cleaning firm, the story hit the media.
Two (not three, as Ms Bridges says) months later, according to the Maine DEP:
“The Department tried to reach the homeowner to determine the current levels of mercury on the one spot with readings over 300 ng/m3. The homeowner called the Department on May 15, 2007 and agreed to have the Department come to her house on Friday (May 18, 2007) to obtain measurements and potentially remove the carpet piece in question. Upon arrival on Friday, the Department responder found no measurements over 300 ng/m3, including at the point of impact. However, the carpet piece was removed by the responder at the request of the homeowner.”
Ms Bridges says “the bag where they had placed the carpet into still had readings higher than the state’s danger level”; the Maine DEP says, “found no measurements over 300 ng/m3, including at the point of impact.” Wishart, and his new-found friend “Brandy” make much of the removal of the carpet; the Maine DEP says, “the carpet piece was removed by the responder at the request of the homeowner.”
So, two parallel realities here. You decide which one is the real reality.
But note, as the Maine DEP says, “… CFLs do contain a small amount of mercury, they do need to be properly cleaned up when broken, and they need to be taken to a recycling facility for fluorescent bulbs when being disposed of.”