Sunday, September 21st, 2014

On Bob Marshall and light bulbs

Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, has made several wrong statements about the mercury risks from compact fluorescent light bulbs.
Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, has made several wrong statements about the mercury risks from compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Del. Bob Marshall rose on the House floor last week and took issue with a False rating we gave on Feb. 13 to his claim: "You’re supposed to throw away your shoes" if mercury from a broken compact fluorescent light bulb gets on them.

"This article flies in the face of well-established and readily available facts regarding the serious dangers of mercury contamination, especially to pregnant women, infants and small children," the Prince William County Republican said in a news release he sent out on Feb. 16.

Marshall, who is seeking the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate this year, accused us of a "cavalier and cynical treatment" of a serious subject.

We do not dispute that precautions should be taken when mercury is released.

But there’s a big difference between mercury beads spilling from a broken glass thermometer and the amount released from a shattered CFL bulb. Marshall, in his statements, glosses over this key distinction.

The average curlicue bulb contains 1/125th of the mercury that’s in an old-fashioned glass thermometer. That equates to the amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.

To back his claim, Marshall sent us a list of mercury clean-up guidelines from four states. His news release contained the recommendations of six additional states.

"Several states’ Internet websites contain warnings expressly advising that persons cleaning up small mercury spills -- such as those from broken CFLs or thermometers -- should wear shoe protection or dispose of shoes contaminated with mercury," Marshall said in his news release.

The states are consistent in recommending that clothing tainted by mercury beads -- such as the spill from a shattered thermometer -- be carefully discarded. But as we noted in our original story, you won’t see liquid quicksilver mercury from a CFL break. All you’ll see is glass and mercury powder.

Marshall, in his original statement and his news release, conflates recommendations on how to deal with large spills with what to do in the event of a small release from a CFL bulb break.

Some state fact sheets that Marshall cited -- such as Kentucky and New York -- make specific recommendations to cleaning up mercury beads but make no reference to fluorescent light bulbs. Other states include specific recommendations for how to deal with a CFL break while also providing different advice on how to deal with a larger spill where there are visible mercury drops.

Marshall noted in his news release, for example, that a New Jersey state fact sheet recommends throwing out shoes that come in contact with mercury. But the same paragraph he cites notes that this should be done after the homeowner wipes off "visible mercury beads." Again, in the case of CFL break, there’s powder and glass, not quicksilver beads.

The delegate also noted that Kentucky environmental officials suggest throwing out shoes after cleaning up spills of "a thermometer or less." But that section of the fact sheet he cites also says that’s what a homeowner should do after cleaning up "visible mercury beads" with index cards, a squeegee and an eye dropper.

For our original story, we spoke with Robert Francis, branch manager of environmental response at the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection. He said his agency has no recommendation on whether to throw out shoes if they’re tainted by a broken CFL.

For all the sources Marshall cites, not a single one specifically recommends the discarding of shoes tainted by CFL debris. On the other hand, our quick search found five states -- West Virginia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Mississippi -- that recommend simply wiping the shoes off with a wet towel.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing light bulb manufacturers, says wipe the shoes off. The Environmental Protection Agency, in a web site posting on how to clean up a CFL break, doesn’t even mention shoes.

On water and light bulbs

We also looked into another statement Marshall made during Feb. 2 appearance before a General Assembly subcommittee on behalf of a bill he sponsored to allow companies to keep producing traditional incandescent light bulbs in Virginia. The legislation was killed.

"Government’s own publications state the mercury in one of these curlicue (CFL) bulbs is enough to pollute 6,000 gallons of water," Marshall said.

Marshall pointed to several sources in the media, including Investor’s Business Daily as well as a widely-quoted story from MSNBC in April 2008.

The MSNBC story says the amount of mercury in a CFL bulb is about 5 milligrams, which "is enough to contaminate up to 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe drinking levels." The story said that statistic was "extrapolated from Stanford University research on mercury."

We couldn’t track down the research it was based on. Dan Stober, a spokesman for Stanford University, said he had not heard of the research and could not locate it. The MSNBC reporter who broadcast the story did not respnd to our email.

Stober directed our queries to Gordon Brown, a professor at Stanford’s Department of Geological and Environmental Services. So we asked Brown if the amount of mercury in one CFL bulb would pollute 6,000 gallons of water.

Brown did some calculations, assuming that the CFL contains 5 milligrams of mercury. That’s close to the 4 milligrams that the EPA says is in an average CFL bulb. The professor said if you also assume that the phrase "contaminate" cited in news articles is a reference to equaling or exceeding federal drinking water standards, then it’s a straightforward equation to see if 6,000 gallons would be fouled by the mercury in a single bulb.

The EPA’s maximum contaminant level in drinking water is .002 mg of mercury per liter, a cut-off point where the agency says no adverse health effects are expected to occur. Brown’s calculations show it would take 45 milligrams -- or the amount in 9 CFL bulbs --- to exceed that level in 6,000 gallons.

We got a similar analysis from the Washington Department of Ecology. We had reached out to that state agency because they also say on their website that the amount of mercury in a single CFL bulb is enough to make 6,000 gallons of water toxic.

Kara Steward, an environmental specialist at the agency, said the source of the statement was the 2008 MSNBC report.

After we contacted the agency, Steward ran the numbers based on the EPA’s maximum contaminant levels and found there’s enough mercury in a single CFL bulb to make 660 gallons undrinkable. That’s nearly one-tenth of the amount that Marshall cited.

We decided not to subject Marshall to a Truth-O-Meter on the 6,000 gallon claim, since he based his statement on information that had been previously reported on national TV, mentioned in a couple of newspapers, and noted on a state government web site.