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Will New Warning Labels About the Mercury Content in Light Bulbs Be Enough?

August 2010

Will New Warning Labels About the Mercury Content in Light Bulbs Be Enough?

by Lorraine Wilde

Lorraine Wilde is a freelance journalist and environmental scientist. She is a regular contributor to and taught environmental science at WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment. Lorraine also spent four years as co-editor and writer for the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Her blog, Egg Mama, may be found at

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently revised its guidance on the cleanup and safe disposal of compact fluorescent light bulbs. In mid-June of this year, the Federal Trade Commission announced that the packaging requirements for compact fluorescent light bulbs, including mercury content disclosure, will be revised. So what’s all the federal fuss about?

The public has been warned since at least 2004 that infants and pregnant women should limit their consumption of certain kinds of fish due to the potential neurotoxicity of mercury. That education has resulted in posted warnings at fishing areas, targeted education of specific ethnic groups and even warnings on tuna cans.

But a scientific study released in 2008 by Maine’s Department of Environmental Quality indicates that mercury from broken compact fluorescent light bulbs can represent an equally significant mercury exposure. The study’s most important conclusions include findings that concentrations as high as 25,000 nanograms per cubic meter can occur in air, even weeks after the initial bulb breakage. High concentrations can remain in surfaces like carpeting, and become re-suspended in the air when agitated, such as when a small child plays on it. Emily Cross, Bellingham realtor and mother of two, thinks the new compact fluorescent light bulb packaging revisions are far too little, too late.

Hidden Sources of Mercury

In 2008, Cross’ 3-year-old son Addison knocked over a lamp in his bedroom. Like every superdad, with 2-year-old son Owen on his hip, Emily’s husband, Jason, immediately cleaned up the broken glass with the household vacuum. Little did he know that the EPA website specifically recommends against the use of a vacuum because the heavy metal contaminants in the bulbs, including mercury and lead, are suspended into the breathable air and blown around the room each time the vacuum is used.

By late 2008, Addison began exhibiting unexplained symptoms.

“To understand the impact on my son, you had to know him before his illness,” Emily Cross said. “He could read words by age three and he learned to identify whales just by looking at their fins. Around early age four, we started to notice that no one was telling us how bright he was anymore.”

There were other unusual changes. “He had red patches on his feet and he had no energy. When Addison came home from preschool crying that no one would play with him because he could no longer keep up, my heart just broke,” Cross said.

The Cross’ repeatedly turned to their family physician and were eventually referred to an orthopedic specialist at Children’s Hospital in Seattle for Addison’s repeated falling. The results of the consult did not sit well with the Cross family.

“They basically said that if he still has this problem at age 7 or 8, they’d want to break his leg bones, and put in steel rods for support,” Cross said (a procedure known as bilateral osteotomy). “I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”

Cross went home and called her naturopathic physician, Dr. Wendy Ellis, of the Tahoma Clinic in Renton, Wash. Emily had been seeing Ellis for her own food sensitivities.

“Other doctors had looked for the standard things,” Ellis said. “Addison was about to be placed in a category that a lot of kids are put in: clumsy and not paying attention. But the people who knew him, his parents and teachers, knew there was something else wrong. First we changed his diet and tested him for mineral deficiencies. That test revealed some elevated metals.”

Addison’s urine was tested for a battery of metals including lead, arsenic, and mercury. His urine tested positive for mercury, at a level of 36 micrograms per gram (µg/g).

“The acceptable range for mercury is less than 5 µg/g,” Ellis said. “We don’t need it in our bodies. But this value is for an adult, so Addison’s level was one of the highest I’ve seen in a child. That was high even for an adult.”

Ellis recommended chelation therapy, a process involving the ingestion of a provocation chemical to chelate or grab the metals out of the body and send them out with the urine.

“I started to notice improvements in Addison’s symptoms about halfway through his chelation therapy,” Emily Cross said. “Since then, he’s gained weight and most of his symptoms are gone. My baby has been returned to me.”

In March, 2010, Addison’s urine mercury level had been successfully reduced to just 7.4 µg/g.

Haunted by the Past

But their saga wasn’t over yet. Ellis stressed that the family needed to determine where Addison was being exposed to these metals; otherwise the therapy would only be a temporary fix. The Cross’ also worried that their younger son, Owen, would begin to show symptoms. The Cross’ tested their drinking water and the salmon in their freezer for mercury.

“We wanted to test a lot more, like our soil and food from our garden, but throughout this whole ordeal we had no insurance, so we were racking up a lot of debt and couldn’t afford to test more,” Cross said.

Only the king salmon tested positive, with a measurable value of 0.058 mg/kg. But Ellis explained that the amount of mercury in the tested salmon was not large enough to account for such a high level in Addison’s body.

“He’d have to eat that salmon every day for a long time to reach a level that high,” Ellis said.

It wasn’t until the Cross’ went over a list of potential sources of mercury that Jason remembered breaking the fluorescent light bulb. The Cross’ had participated in a program introduced by Puget Sound Energy (PSE) in the early 2000s that encouraged the switch from incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs at a significantly reduced cost.

“At the time, we felt like we were doing something good for the environment and our community. We changed out every light bulb in the house,” Cross said.

But the Cross’ feel haunted by the past.

“We read all the literature. We knew that compact fluorescent light bulbs contained mercury and that when they burned out you didn’t just throw them in the trash, but we never saw any warnings about what to do if you broke one,” Cross said.

Since making the connection to light bulbs, the Cross’ have lowered their family’s exposure to heavy metals by removing fish and many other foods from their diet, replacing all the carpeting in their home with a non-toxic wool brand, and replacing their vacuum cleaner. Emily estimates they’ve spent about $16,000 to date.

New Label Warns Consumers

For a while, the Cross’ were just happy to have Addison well. But it’s been tough for them to move on. They don’t feel that enough has been done to warn consumers about exposure to mercury when the bulbs break.

“I just don’t want another child to suffer, or another family to have to go through this pain and financial stress over something as simple as a broken light bulb,” Cross said.

Emily Cross may just get her wish. On June 18, 2010, the Federal Trade Commission issued a press release indicating that new labeling requirements featuring “Lighting Facts” similar in design to the “Nutrition Facts” labels that consumers are accustomed to seeing on food. The new labels will include a disclosure for bulbs containing mercury that states simply, “Contains Mercury. For more on clean up and safe disposal, visit”

Cross said she believes this warning does not go far enough.

“Will families go to the website before installing the bulbs in their child’s bedroom? Before they vacuum up a broken bulb? Probably not. The warning should be on the bulb and the packaging, not a website,” Cross said.

Hampton Newsome, Enforcement Officer for the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, responds to this criticism.

“The Commission went through a lengthy public comment process, and we feel that the new label is in line with the concerns raised at that time,” Newsome said. “Label space is always a consideration. We see this as an improvement because the new label certainly has more information than has been there previously. In time, the Commission can revisit this subject if further concerns are raised.”

The new labeling requirements won’t take effect until at least mid-2011. Until then, the Cross’ will continue to spread the word to their friends, family, and anyone else who will listen.

“I just don’t want another family to have to go through this,” Cross said. §

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