The Fluorescent Lighting System

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Appendix B: I Broke a Fluorescent Lamp. Now What?

If the worst happens and a lamp breaks, the first things to do are to treat any injuries and limit further exposure.

If any part of the lamp remains in the fixture or still in a screw-base socket, disconnect power to the fixture or socket to prevent any possible fire hazard. (Any parts of the lamp still in the fixture will be removed later.)

Open doors and windows in the area to allow any mercury vapor to start dispersing from the immediate area. If other areas of the building can be closed-off, close them off. TURN OFF AND LEAVE OFF any window or central air conditioner blowers and ceiling fans, as the mercury may condense in the air ducts or coils of these units or spread the contamination to other areas. Allow outdoor air flow to clear the air for an hour at least. (A box fan positioned in a window or door that is pushing air into the room from the outside can help speed the process. Don't use the fan to blow air already in the contaminated room anywhere else.)

Any bleeding injuries should be treated immediately since many of the phosphors used in lamps can prevent blood from clotting and impair healing. Any skin or eye contact with phosphor should be washed with water for at least 15 minutes, unless the eye was actually cut by glass. If an eye injury occurred, ask emergency personnel how to proceed, as washing with water might cause more problems. All contaminted clothing and shoes must be removed prior to leaving the area. Then get medical attention immediately, no matter how minor the injury or contamination seems to be. Cleaning up the affected area should be done after injured persons are treated.

Keep all children well away from the area, and wash the hands, feet and knees of small children frequently in the following days, in case they pick up residual traces of phosphor or mercury from the floor. Washing their hands is extremely important to help prevent them from getting any mercury in their mouth.

If a pet is cut by lamp glass, or licks any of the lamp material (including trying to lick a wound), the pet should be taken for emergency attention as well. Poisoning from both the phosphor and the mercury can occur. Some animals are attracted to the shiny beads of mercury and may ingest them.

If you had a lamp break and parts fell into an aquarium, the specimens need immediate action. See below. later.)

Even if there are no injuries, clothes and shoes must be still washed before being used again. In particular, the rubber in shoes can absorb the mercury they come in contact with (usually from the floor), so shoes must be washed thoroughly, and all contaminated items should be washed separately from non-contaminated items. Mercury on the floor will be picked-up by the shoes of others as well as the feet of pets, so keep uncontaminated individuals and all pets out of the area until it is cleaned-up.

The larger the lamp, the more mercury is present that will need to be cleared. Compact fluorescent lamps have the smallest amount of mercury and make a smaller mess if they are broken, but it is still a problem.

Inhalation of any mercury vapor is extremely dangerous, and mercury vapor will be present if the lamp was operating or was hot when it was broken. However, unless you are in a very confined area with the lamp when it broke, your exposure to the vapor from one or a few broken lamps will probably be quite low, so do not panic.

If the lamp was not operating when it was broken and the area that the lamps were in was not in direct sunlight or near some other heat source, some of the mercury is likely in a liquid state, which is less dangerous. However, there will always be some mercury vapor present, and it should not be ignored.

While waiting for the room to ventilate, you can start the clean-up by locating a large glass jar, such as one that was used for pickles or something similar, preferably having a screw-on lid. Don't use your favorite glassware for this task as you will have to dispose of this container later. Plastic containers should not be used. Also locate paper (not plastic) grocery bags and build a double or triple layer bag. A paper yard trimmings bag will also work.

When ready to start the cleaning, put on some heavy work gloves (which you will discard later). Don't use the thin plastic gloves like the ones that come with hair-coloring.

If any part of the lamp is still in the fixture, that piece needs to be removed first since it could also fall. This has to be done carefully, because there may still be mercury and other debris in the part remaining in the fixture that hasn't spilled-out yet.

If the lamp was a straight-line tube and part of it is still in the fixture, try to pull the part gently from its socket while holding the glass tube as close to horizontal as possible and grasp the tube as close to the socket as possible. In this situation, the lamp should pull straight out without having to rotate it. The moment the lamp detaches from the socket, tilt the tube so that any loose material inside falls toward the non-broken end of the lamp. Now, pour the contents of the tube into the glass jar you located earlier. Don't worry about any loose metal parts or pieces of glass that may fall into the jar. Once emptied of loose material, place the glass section into the paper sack. If the other end of the tube is also still in the fixture, repeat this process for that end of the lamp.

If the lamp was a screw-in style compact fluorescent lamp, you may need some help for this part. Get someone to hold the glass jar under the broken part of the lamp, while you unscrew the lamp by reaching grasping the base and turning that. If at all possible, don't unscrew the lamp by grasping the glass, because any remaining glass tubing may be highly fragile now, and could break in more places. As you unscrew the lamp, more debris and mecury could fall out of the end of the lamp, so the person holding the jar is there to try to catch as much of that material as possible in the jar. Once free from the socket, dump the entire compact fluorescent lamp into the glass jar. If it won't fit, hold it broken-end down in the jar, and rotate the lamp ten times clockwise and then ten times counter-clockwise. On the "twist" style fluorescent lamps, this step will give every opportunity for any mercury still in the lamp to work its way out of the lamp and into the glass jar. Then put the base part of the broken lamp and any attached glass into the paper sack.

If part or all of a straight-line lamp is on the floor, pick-up one end of the lamp and hold that section so that the broken end is higher than the unbroken end, the end with the electrical contacts. The idea here is that depending on how the lamp fell when it was broken, some of the mercury may still be in the lamp, and with careful handling now, you can avoid spilling any more out of the broken section of the lamp. Pour the contents of the broken section of the lamp into the glass jar, so that any remaining mercury will end up in the jar. Don't worry if phosphor or bits of glass and other metal parts fall into the jar. After emptying the section of the broken tube, place that broken section of glass in the paper sack. Now, repeat that process process with the other end of the lamp, and finally, any other sections of the tube.

Now, pick up the larger remaining pieces of glass or metal parts (still wearing gloves) and place those pieces of glass in the paper sack. DO NOT use a vacuum cleaner to clean up the area, at least not yet.

If the lamp broke in a carpeted area, or parts fell onto a chair or sofa, immediately contact a professional cleaner to treat these areas, and explain that this is a mercury spill. DO NOT EVER use a home steam cleaner, iron or any other source of heat in an attempt to remove the mercury. This will just make things worse. Don't use a consumer vacuum cleaner of any sort as it will become permanently contaminated. Keep people and animals away from contaminated carpets and furniture until they can be cleaned. Mercury can get under the carpet and into the pad, as well as get down into the fabrics of chairs and sofas. Depending on the material used and the amount of contamination, it may be necessary to replace the exterior fabric of chairs or sofas, and to replace the carpet padding in the affected area.

If the lamp fell on smooth tile or waxed flooring (including waxed wood or polished stone floors), you may be able to clean the spill yourself. While still wearing heavy work gloves, use a small piece of cardboard or something similar that can be discarded to push the beads of mercury together. (You might take a desk light or other source and lay it on the floor so that the light shines across the affected area. Doing this and turning off the main room lights may help locate additional shiny beads of mercury.

Once the mercury has been gathered together, if you have a chemical laboratory pipette and a suction bulb (DO NOT DRAW SUCTION BY MOUTH), collect the mercury place it in the glass jar. Once again, DO NOT use a plastic container of any type.) If you don't have access to a pipette, use dry cotton balls or dry paper towels to collect the mercury. Place these cotton balls or paper towels AND the piece of cardboard you used to push the mercury around with in the glass jar.

Once the area appears to be completely free of mercury, sprinkle sulfur or calcium polysulfide on the area. (Powdered Sulfur is sold in most garden stores so it can obtained quickly.) Then, wipe the entire area with a damp (not soaked) paper towel, put that towel in the jar, then repeat with new DRY towels until all traces of the mercury and sulfur are gone. Examine the paper towels for traces of the sulfur or mercury to know if you need to do another cleaning with a new dry paper towel. Remember to put the cleaning materials used in the disposal container (or containers) and seal the lid of the jar tightly.

If the spill occurs on concrete, rough stone, fired stone materials, or unwaxed wood floors, apply the sulfur first, as it will help get the mercury out of the pores in the material. (Note: Sulfur can react with some types of unpolished wood flooring, so do a test application in a corner first.) Some types of concrete and stone will have to be treated by products designed for mercury spills on porous surfaces. You might call the United States Coast Guard National Response Center at +1 800 424-8802 or your local hazardous spill response team (usually a part of the local fire department) for their recommendations on how to deal with a spill of mercury on the materials present at your location.

Once the spill is cleaned, the containers of broken glass, mercury and ALL cleaning materials (INCLUDING the gloves you used) must all be delivered to a hazardous material handler for proper disposal. They may want to know how many lamps were involved in the spill and what compounds were used to neutralize the mercury.

Broken Fluorescent Lamps and Aquariums

This is special information about fluorescent lamp breakage in aquariums. If a lamp breaks open and contents of the lamp fall into an aquarium, immediately disconnect all power to all devices associated with that tank (including air supplies), and immediately remove all fish and other specimens to any other container with new water. Do not bring any of the water from the contaminated tank. Get the specimens out quickly, as quickly as you can get the new water temperature and salt levels correct or de-chlorination completed. Fish can absorb mercury in water quickly.

Once the fish and other specimens are out of danger, you do have a long clean-up process. First, contact your local authorities for the precise rules where you live about disposal of water contaminated with mercury before doing anything to the water.

In most places, you can take the water out of the tank and mix it with powdered sulfur (at roughly one pound for every twenty gallons of water), and mix thoroughly. (Do this outdoors.) That will neutralize the mercury in the water, and in most areas, that treated water can then be disposed of via a public sewer system, but cannot be put into a septic tank, nor can the liquid be discarded outdoors or allowed to enter any waterway. The water must still be treated at a wastewater facility. (The mercury is still there after the sulfur is mixed-in. It just isn't as harmful to human contact as it was.)

If you find that your area doesn't even allow the neutralized mix to be put into the sanitary sewer, you will have to transport all of the water to a hazardous waste handler. After mixing with sulfur, you can boil the water to partly reduce its volume, but do this outdoors on a camp stove or some portable heating device with good ventilation. (Notice: The container you boil the liquid in will be permanently contaminated.) Alternatively, and if you have the time, you can set the water containers outdoors in the sun for a few weeks and let evaporation reduce the volume of water, and then take the remainder to the hazardous waste handler.

Unfortunately, all aquarium plants in the affected tank must be treated as hazardous waste. Plastic tubing (such as air lines) and any plastic plants or flexible plastic props that were in the water of the affected tank must also be replaced, because these types of plastic can absorb and then slowly release the mercury.

Non-porous aquarium gravel, rigid plastic items and non-porous tank items (such as fired-glazed clay trinkets, bridges, treasure chests, wishing wells, etc) should be cleaned much as you would normally do for cleaning, typically by scrubbing in a baking soda/water solution with successive rinses. All water used in the cleaning process must also be saved and treated as described above. Remember that the mercury is as heavy if not heavier than the gravel, so you must scoop small amounts of the gravel out of the tank, pour water over it to carry the mercury away, then repeat the process until all gravel has been rinsed. The muddy debris in the contaminated tank will be where the mercury is now and that will have to be handled like hazardous waste. Don't dispose of it down the sink or in the yard.

Porous items (like most sea shells, sandstone and all coral) can sometimes be cleaned successfully in a water and sulfur paste solution, soaked in the same solution for several hours, scrubbed with baking soda and water, and then let standing in a clean water bath for at least 24 hours. This entire process will probably kill any living coral you have and may discolor the other objects, but it's your only choice if you want to keep them in the tank. Otherwise, these items must be treated as hazardous waste and properly disposed of. As above, the tailings from cleaning porous items will also likely contain some mercury contamination, and will have to be disposed of properly.

Once emptied of filters, plants, props and gravel, scrub clean and rinse the tank repeatedly (baking soda and water), using as little water as possible, because you have to capture the first two washings or so of that water for disposal. Remove all moss from the glass with a razor blade scraper. After several additional rinse cycles, the tank is as clean as you will ever get it. Microscopic traces of mercury can get into the glass caulk, and there is no practical way to remove it, but the residual amount is so small that it should not cause any problems.

Now you can start putting all the other cleaned items back in the tank, except for the plants and flexible plastic items which should be replaced.

The best tip for for aquariums is prevention: Move cover light fixtures well away from the tanks when servicing the lamp or starter, to reduce the possibility that a lamp could be broken where it could fall into the water. At other times, keep the top of tanks completely covered to reduce the possibility that broken parts from room fluorescent lamps could ever fall into the tank. When servicing overhead fixtures, temporarily cover aquariums with plastic bags or sheeting as a precaution. Don't position heavy objects above tanks where they could fall onto the tank covers, breaking the lamp inside.

Don't use tank covers that are cracked or otherwise damaged where they could unexpectedly shift and fall into the tank on their own. Having the lid fall into a tank full of water typically won't break a lamp, but you trying to catch or stop a falling cover and lamp could cause breakage and could give you an electrical shock. Let it fall, unplug the power and then retrieve the cover and the hopefully unbroken lamp.

This point is extremely obvious but it must still be stated: If a fluorescent lamp breaks and it or its content fall into the lobster or live "pick your dish" tank at some dining establishment, DO NOT serve the contents of that tank to your patrons in any form, EVER! The tank and its contents should be discarded and replaced. DO NOT re-use anything from the comtaminated tank in a way where it could come in contact with or become human food. Even cooked seafood will still retain any mercury absorbed from such an incident.

The same warning goes for fish farms and other confined fish-raising facilities that manage to get mercury into the tanks from any source. That livestock can never become food for humans or feed for something that might eventually be consumed by humans.

A Final Note on Mercury Spill Handling

There are numerous material safety sheets available on the Internet and directly from chemical companies that provide recommendations on how to deal with mercury spills. The procedures for handling mercury spills are constantly being refined, so seeking professional help to clean up a spill is recommended since they should have the latest handling procedures.

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[Copyright 2002,2003,2004,2005 Frank Durda IV, All Rights Reserved.
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Contact this address for use clearances: clearance at
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