Investigating the reality of Wishart’s ‘reality’

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.”

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8 Responses to “Investigating the reality of Wishart’s ‘reality’”

  1. Ian Wishart Says:

    Nice try Pete…but not even close enough for a match, let alone a cigar..

    All of the above is covered in the 21 page article.

    For example, it clearly explains the significance of the 300ng threshold being a long term chronic exposure level. It then details what EPA rules are if a site has chronic levels over 1000ng/m3 – if it is a home it is deemed unsafe to live in. For commercial sites the level is set at 3000 ng/m3 (people don’t live in their offices so the limit is higher).

    The article includes referenced case studies of mercury contaminated sites at such levels.

    The Maine DEP study went on to show that in the case of a broken light bulb, EPA clean-up guidelines were ineffective when it came to carpets, meaning that even months later mercury levels in a room could be kicked back up into the tens of thousands of ng/m3 by activity on the carpet (kids playing, vacuuming etc) – far in excess of the limits (referenced in the article) whereupon buildings have been declared hazardous by the EPA and relevant agencies.

    The Brandy interview was simply an interview, her story. The Maine document you referenced was written prior to the completion of the Maine DEP study published end of Feb 08. Maine realised that the early advice needed tightening up as a result of what they found.

    The reality is that a number of US states, Maine, California and Mass iirc, have now issued formal recommendations that CFLs not be used over carpets or in kids rooms, or in homes where a woman is pregnant.

    None of that advice is consistent with the current NZ Government position, and nor is the NZ government or poisons centre advice up to date.

    You are correct that people can choose between two realities on this. The difference is that if they read the full 21 page report, they’ll get a much more honest overview than your attempted fisk.

  2. Inventory2 Says:

    The offer stands JP – just drop me an e-mail, and the mag will be in a courier bag on Monday. It’s far more comprehensive than the web version.

  3. jafapete Says:

    Okay, in the interests of getting this issue in perspective, here’s what the Massachusetts DEP says:

    “The Maine study detected, under some circumstances, mercury levels of potential concern to young children and pregnant women.

    What you should know:
    # Small amounts of mercury are components of all fluorescent light bulbs, including those that have been in use in offices, commercial and retail establishments, and residential basements for years. There is no known substitute.

    # CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury – typically 1/100th the amount found in mercury fever thermometers.

    # Intact CFLs pose no threat of mercury exposure and provide important benefits in reduced energy use (and lower energy costs for consumers), reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and reduced local air pollution (particulates and other pollutants) from electric power generation.

    # Consumers should handle CFLs carefully to avoid breakage, and refrain from using CFLs in lamps that can be knocked over easily, or in unprotected fixtures where bulbs are particularly at risk of being broken in the presence of young children, as in play spaces.

    # If a CFL breaks on a floor or carpet, follow the clean-up instructions found here.

    # Intact CLFs that have burned out or are no longer wanted should be recycled through local recycling centers. Information on recycling mercury, including a list of local recycling centers in Massachusetts, is available here. As of May 1, 2008 Massachusetts law prohibits disposal of products containing mercury, including CFLs, with household trash.

  4. Inventory2 Says:

    Re the last point JP – what is proposed for CFL disposal here? And how many CFL’s have already been disposed with household refuse, and what mercury hazard could that lead to?

  5. jafapete Says:

    Good point I2, so I went to the Auckland Regional Council website — they operate the Hazmobile. Eventually found their advice for disposing of fluorescent lighting:

    “If you have broken a bulb and want to know how to clean it up safely, the US Environmental Protection Agency advice is here.
    Ministry for the Environment advice is here.

    The NZ Ministry for the Environment advice is as Wishart outlines, and is not consistent with the advice of the US environment protection agencies he identifies as having very cautious guidance.

    Note that the US EPA site states, “Pending the completion of a full review of the Maine study, EPA will determine whether additional changes to the cleanup recommendations are warranted. The agency plans to conduct its own study on CFLs after thorough review of the Maine study.”

  6. Inventory2 Says:

    So if New Zealand doesn’t yet have a disposal plan set in concrete, isn’t it premature to be pushing CFLs as some sort of magic bullet? I certainly won’t be rushing out to buy CFLs at the moment.

  7. macdoctor01 Says:

    JP: As I pointed out in a comment (still awaiting moderation, apparently) on the Eco bulb post, the Ministry of Environment quote wikipedia on their CFL page. This does not fill me with gushy feelings of confidence.

    Their disposal advice does not stress ventilating the room for at least 10 minutes. They advise storing the pieces in a sealed plastic bag instead of a sealed glass jar. Both of these are essential, according to the maine study. The EPA advice is much more complete.

    As I point out in my post on this, the real problem is with proper disposal. Currently there is nothing in place for simple domestic disposal. The Hazmobile is great, but you have to go there, they don’t pick up. This means that many people will just dump the bulbs into the main rubbish. Also Hazmobile services Auckland and a few other places. What arrangements for disposal are being made elsewhere? These things need to be thought through carefully before we bring a worst problem upon ourselves.

  8. zin Says:

    excuse me guys,

    I talked to a chemist and his very first question was: free Hg per thermometer? Or salt mercury per an oxide, a chloride etc..?

    From a light bulb – certainly a CFL-coated bulb – busted – there aint no free Hg

    And at room temps any other form of the stuff is pretty stable unless someone is either ignorant or stupid and ingests it..

    My point: could we get this down to real.. and practical.. instead of bookish and bs..

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