The CFL – angel or demon?

An e-mail detailing the gruesome horror of a local man’s ordeal after stepping on a Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) has been doing the rounds recently. GAVIN MYERS sat down with Eskom to find the facts behind CFLs.

An attention-grabbing e-mail has been going around over the past few weeks that details – with nauseating pictures – the situation in which an un-named man found himself after stepping on a CFL. The pictures are certainly something of an eye-opener. Was it really misfortune that a CFL had been stepped on, or was someone feeling creative when they opened their Photoshop one morning? As is often the case with chain e-mails, the source can never really be proven as invariably a link will break somewhere.
For those readers who haven’t come across this mail yet, it states: “The man stepped on the bulb on 10 February. He was in ICU for a week and at one stage doctors thought he was going to lose his foot. Luckily, they have managed to save his foot so far. His foot is connected to a VAC machine that basically sucks the damaged and tainted tissue out. There is still a VERY long road to recovery ahead, which requires a number of procedures includes skin grafts. The photos show how bad the tissue damage is. It’s quite graphic but very important to share (sic).”
And graphic it certainly is. Though it can only be viewed at this stage to be allegation, we consulted with Eskom on the issue, who later confirmed they were aware of the email being in circulation and have subsequently set-up an investigation into its claims and to try to establish legitimacy.
The e-mail also refers to Eskom’s past campaign to freely replace incandescent light bulbs with CFLs, and claims that Eskom “has neglected to tell the unsuspecting public that the bulbs are filled with mercury and how to deal with the situation if you break one”. But Eskom denounces this claim.
According to Eskom, in the promotion of CFLs as a more energy efficient lighting option, the utility made details available with regards to the handling of CFLs, particularly since a small amount of mercury is contained in each unit when new. “A mercury fact sheet was compiled in 2006 and distributed to the media,” says Andrew Etzinger, Eskom Senior General Manager Integrated Demand Management. “Since then we have published it on the IDM (previously DSM) website. We share the information with media on enquiries and when we have briefed the media on the CFL rollout programme.
“Since the first mass rollout Eskom has continued to educate, in every CFL education marketing document, on mercury content, safe handling and disposal of CFLs. These include fact sheets, pamphlets, low literacy comic strips, development of minimum disposal and recycling guidelines, educational advertorials in consumer magazines and online mediums. All our CFL advertising, done to support roll outs, has always had a consumer alert to the safe handling included in their message.”
Eskom further says they supplied step-by-step guides on how to dispose of used or failed CFLs in the most environmentally friendly manner, as well as on what to do if a CFL breaks. “An educational CFL disposal advertorial was developed and placed in the national-level You, Drum and Huisgenoot magazines when the national CFL rollout took place in 2008, and has been repeated on an annual base. We are currently working on an updated version that will be placed towards the end of July,” Etzinger continues.
Comprehensive documents detailing all aspects surrounding CFLs are also available from Eskom’s IDM website.
Regardless, here are some facts surrounding the CFL. Mercury is an essential, irreplaceable element in CFLs – it is what allows the bulb to be such an efficient light source. When electricity is passed through mercury vapor in a phosphor tube, short-wave ultraviolet light is produced, causing the phosphor to fluoresce, thus making visible light. Installing CFLs in the individual home can save up to 80% in its lighting costs.
During the course of the lamp’s life, the mercury is absorbed into the lamp walls, the metal lamp ends and other bulb components. Therefore, at the end of a CFLs rated life, very little of the mercury is available for release into the environment.
The question arises: since potential mercury poisoning is a scary reality, is it worth exposing (all) the nation’s homes and working places to the risk?
One would have to weigh that up against the fact that, over a period of five years, the amount of mercury released into the air by burning fossil fuels to power an incandescent bulb (10 mg) is around 3,6 mg more than that included in a single CFL and the amount released in generating its required power (2,4 mg) put together.
The fact is that a single CFL contains no more than 5 mg mercury. Put into perspective, a watch battery contains 25 mg mercury, while a standard household thermometer and the silver-coloured fillings for teeth each contain 500 mg mercury. The average amount of mercury in a CFL is thus about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen, in vapour form in the lamp.
That is in no way to say CFLs can be treated without care – every product that contains mercury should be handled and disposed of carefully. While CFLs used in the home are not legally considered hazardous, it is still best for the environment to dispose of them properly, by making use of local utilities’ e-waste disposal strategy. Retailers such as Pick n Pay and Woolworths also have disposal facilities in their stores.
If a CFL breaks inside a building, for example in your home or in an office, one should immediately open nearby windows to disperse any vapour that may escape, before carefully sweeping up the fragments (not using one’s bare hands) and wiping the area with a disposable paper towel to remove all glass fragments. It is of utmost importance that a vacuum cleaner is not used as this will spread chemically contaminated fragments around the room. All fragments should then be placed in a sealable plastic bag and disposed of at a proper facility.
At the moment, the safe disposal of CFLs is currently the responsibility of the Illumination Engineering Society of South Africa (IESSA) and the Department of Environmental Affairs. These two entities have a joint working group and are working on waste disposal mechanisms for South Africa. The IESSA represents the lighting industry of South Africa.
Whether or not Eskom’s investigation confirms the allegations contained in the recent email, one must still bear in mind the element mercury has highly toxic properties, and as such, all products containing this element must be treated with the necessary care and procedure.

“While CFLs used in the home are not legally considered hazardous, it is still best for the environment to dispose of them properly, by making use of local utilities’ e-waste disposal strategy. Retailers such as Pick n Pay and Woolworths also have disposal facilities in their stores.”

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