Lightbulb (teaser)

Some of the hardest moments as a parent seem to happen when we are at our most exhausted.

In our house, that’s exactly what happened during the dreaded “Lightbulb Disaster of 2019.” We had just arrived home after evening haircut appointments and everyone was tired and hungry. I told the boys to get inside and get ready for supper. The usual bickering ensued, but I ignored it.

Then I heard the crash.

My youngest had kicked his shoe off in the coat closet and it had swung up and hit the lightbulb. Glass rained down everywhere on all the coats, shoes and sports equipment. Fortunately, it didn’t hurt him.

With a groan, I sent the kids outside to play while I cleaned up the mess. Then I remembered some old, high-efficiency lightbulbs have mercury in them. Most of ours had been replaced with the newer LED bulbs, but not all. I pushed down a feeling of dread as I searched the base of the broken lightbulb, praying I wouldn’t see the words “contains mercury” or “Hg,” mercury’s chemical symbol.

My heart sank when I saw it. This lightbulb was indeed one of the old ones that contained mercury. I quickly turned off the air conditioner and opened the windows. These were safety steps I remembered from years ago when we’d broken a lightbulb.

Then I started to pick up the larger broken bits of glass. That was my first mistake. As I learned later when I called Poison Control, I should have left the area for 10 to 15 minutes before I began cleanup.

I knew I wasn’t supposed to use a vacuum because that could disperse the mercury in the air. So I grabbed my broom. That was my second mistake. The bristles of my broom could spread the mercury. Instead, I should have used something like cardboard to brush the larger pieces into a dustpan. Then used a damp, disposable towel to wipe up the rest.

I thought I knew what I was doing, but the next part stumped me. What should I do with all the coats and shoes that had taken a direct hit from the glass of the lightbulb? It seemed logical to put them through the washing machine, so I gathered them in a laundry basket and threw the first load in to wash.

Mistake number three.

Later, once the kids were fed and put to bed, I started looking online to see if I needed to wash the coats and shoes twice or use any certain detergent to get the mercury off. On the web, I found a wide range of advice. Some sites said a lightbulb contains no more mercury than a can of tuna. Other sites said I needed to cut out the carpet where the glass had fallen and throw it away. How should I know what to believe? I decided it was time to turn to the experts at Poison Control.

So I dialed 1-800-222-1222 and the very nice man at Poison Control told me I would need to throw away everything in the coat closet. Plus, because I’d put a load in the washing machine, I’d need to throw that away, too.

I was shocked. It all seemed a little extreme for a broken lightbulb, but I was no expert. If that’s what it took to keep my family safe, I’d do it.

The man at Poison Control did admit their protocols were geared more toward a broken mercury thermometer than a lightbulb and suggested I call the Nebraska Mercury Hotline during regular business hours to get more specific advice on what to do. I didn’t even know we had a Mercury Hotline in Nebraska, but I was glad there was still hope for my washing machine.

Following Poison Control’s instructions for the night, I set everything that had been in the closet outside at least five feet from any open doors or windows until I could get a hold of the Mercury Hotline.

The next morning, I dialed up the hotline (1-402-326-0231) and, to my great relief, the expert there assured me I didn’t have to throw everything away.

Every situation is different, he said, but in our case I could wash everything twice and hang it outside to dry. He told me anything with a hard surface should be wiped down along with the walls and floor in the room. When I was done, I needed to carefully wipe down my washing machine as well.

I followed his instructions to the letter and then called it good. But I think the most important question still remains. Why on earth would we have something that could be so potentially dangerous in our house if we didn’t need to? New technology has given us safer options.

So I did a search for all the mercury lightbulbs in our home and carefully replaced them with LED high efficiency lightbulbs. Now I’m hopeful this never happens again!


Jenni DeWitt is married and has two sons, the youngest of whom battled childhood leukemia — and won. Jenni writes weekly for She is the author of “Forty Days” and “Why Won’t God Talk to Me?” You can read more about Jenni here.

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