Cherie Howie

Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Consumer Watch: Dad's mercury scare

Alarmed family race outdoors as broken lightbulb spills mercury

The Hope family: Honor (left) Damien, Erin and Ryker. Photo / David Alexander
The Hope family: Honor (left) Damien, Erin and Ryker. Photo / David Alexander

A $5 lightbulb has cost a young family $300. Christchurch mechanic Damien Hope was changing the energy-saving lightbulb on Sunday when it broke in his hands. Fearing mercury poisoning, the 33-year-old quickly ushered his two children and the family dog out of the house while wife Erin, 36, searched the internet to find out what to do.

It was extensive. As well as vacuuming up the mess, Hope threw away the clothes he was wearing, bedding on a clothes horse below and children's toys - including the pillow pet his 5-year-old son had received for his birthday the day before.

"All up, we've thrown out about $300 worth of stuff. We're going back to standard bulbs after this. I know it's very unlikely to happen a second time, but I don't want to go through this again."

Some things were saved - kids' clothes at the end of the clothes horse went back on the washing line in the rain, and were then washed a couple more times, he said.

The Hopes also called Poison Line and were told the next couple of times they used their vacuum they would need to throw out the bag immediately, he said.

National Poison Centre spokesman Dr Michael Beasley said he did not think the family needed to throw out clothes, bedding or toys - they could have been washed instead - but precautions were needed when disposing of the powder form of mercury inside eco-bulbs.

This included leaving the room for 15 minutes, ventilating it, using pieces of cardboard or paper to scoop up the broken bulb before putting it in a sealed bag and vacuuming the area.

Mercury levels in the bulbs were very low - 1-8mg per bulb, far less than the 4g of liquid mercury found in thermometers.

Mercury poisoning can cause chronic kidney problems, affect the brain or damage the lungs, he said.

"But a one-off exposure to a small amount [from an eco-bulb] is not going to cause organ problems."

Energy Mad, which produces eco-bulbs, said there was only 1.5mg of mercury in each lightbulb, not enough to cause any harm.

A spokeswoman said that people who broke a bulb should simply collect the pieces with a paper towel, put it in a plastic bag and put it in the rubbish bin.

"It's nothing to be worried about."

- Herald on Sunday

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