Every few days there's a story on the dangers of mercury in broken compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs,) such as this one in Not Martha, where the writer typically claims to go through the following stages of reaction:
Finding the EPA "Disposal Instructions."
Breathing Sigh of Relief that the Government has a Solution.
Following Said Instructions to the Letter (which includes twelve steps such as "open a window immediately," "place debris in a sealed plastic bag," and "immediately place all cleanup materials outside the house."
Writing about it, no doubt cathartically.
The level of fear and risk-aversion shown are enough to make one despair for the future of the human race (by the way, I don't mean to pick on NM particularly, that's just the latest post on this issue that I read and it was like the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.)
When did we get to be so brainless that we need to worry about such relatively temporary and almost-meaningless dangers? When did we lose our common sense that would normally tell us what to do?
Firstly, breaking bulbs is simply not a commonplace occurrence so the supposed danger of a broken bulb are minimal at best. In the last forty years, not-noticeably-careful me has broken about two light bulbs (wish I could say the same about wineglasses in dishwashers.)
Secondly, the dangers of mercury (and asbestos, which is another bug-a-boo mentioned in numerous cri-de-couers in sites such as brownstoner, where anguished posters want to know what to do about the asbestos laden pipes in their basement, for example (hint-ignore it)) are vastly overrated -- for the normal, occasional non-prolonged contact that you would have, say in cleaning up. It cannot kill you. Folks, it's 5 mg (that's milligrams, or about a couple of grains of salt,) in a compound form (that's encapsulated in some other material,) of a substance that you have to be pretty free with on your body or in your lungs to cause any problems.
Thirdly, even using EPA numbers, no doubt pushed by liability lawyers, "the exposure at this level and duration of mercury exposure is not likely to be dangerous, as it is lower than the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard of 0.05 mg/m3 of metallic mercury vapor averaged over eight hours."
Did you ever worry about cleaning up a broken baby's thermometer? Which contains about twenty times the mercury, in liquid form, as a CFL? No, I thought not.
So here's my simplified method that I would use to clean up a broken CFL:
1. Pick up pieces with paper towel. Try not to be stupid enough to cut yourself with the broken glass.
2. Dispose off as specified by your local trash collection agency.
3 Sit back, relax and have a large glass of wine and breathe a sign of relief at having cheated death once again.