Related: How dangerous is a broken compact fluorescent lamp (CFL)?

Actually someone asked this exact thing on that question, but it wasn't addressed, perhaps because they provided no link/further details.

My wife just sent me a bulletin concerning mercury exposure from CFL bulbs. Aside from the inhalation/skin exposure issues typically raised (which are answered in the above linked question quite well), there were pictures of a foot injury supposedly incurred from stepping on a broken CFL bulb.

I won't post the pictures as they are pretty graphic. Find them in this bulletin, supposedly created by the Salisbury Fire Department in Maryland:

Here is the scenario: You are dispatched to The Smith residence for a laceration to the foot. Routine run huh? Nope. What you were not told is that Mr. Smith uses CFL lamps in his home. One of those lamps burned-out, and Mr. Smith did not wait for the lamp to cool down before he stood on a chair and removed it. Because the lamp was hot to the touch, Mr. Smith dropped it. As the lamp hit the floor, it exploded. As Mr. Smith descended from the chair he stepped, barefooted, into the broken glass and exposed mercury. Here is what Mr. Smith’s foot looked like during his 2-week stay in ICU: [graphic pictures follow]

At one stage it was feared that his foot would need to be amputated. Currently his foot is connected to a vacuum pump to remove continuously dead tissue. [another graphic picture]

I dig a bit of digging, but this appears not to have been answered definitively:

Could a laceration from a CFL bulb and subsequent contamination with mercury create the necrosis-looking large gashes shown in the linked article?

P.S. The answer might end the same as Snopes or Hoax Slayer... I'm considering trying to answer this myself by searching for some specialists or institutions specializing in mercury exposure care. Someone else could feel free to do the same -- just one way that might help answer this definitively.

I also took one of the images and did a reverse Google image search hoping to find some instance of it on a medical case example (non-mercury related), but was unsuccessful. All the hits seem to be for the same types of CFL warning pieces.

  • 1
    Instincts alone tell be that is false. One, CFLs don't really get all that hot. Secondly, having seen other Salisbury bulletins and such, that doesn't look like something they would put out. Though the number and email seem to be legit. Those injuries are definitely too severe for the small amount of glass and mercury exposure that would be incurred. – Rig May 25 '12 at 19:35
  • PS: I would almost suspect this is a propaganda deal from those that are against the legislation to eliminate incandescent bulbs... – Rig May 25 '12 at 19:46
  • For what it's worth, I used a little google-fu on their website and couldn't get matches for various words in the document... scratch that, it appears they did author the newsletter, but are claiming the statements in it were fraudulent/hoaxed. Edited the question above accordingly (mis-interpreted Snopes' statement). – Hendy May 25 '12 at 20:39
  • The best reason for supposing it a hoax is the mismatch between the expected effects of mercury and the actual injuries. Glass cuts can be nasty and can sometimes lead to necrosis, but usually because of bacterial infection. Mercury is slow acting and doesn't cause tissue death like this even in large quantities. Moreover, there simply isn't enough mercury in a CFL bulb to cause mercury poisoning even if you could ingest it all!. – matt_black May 26 '12 at 1:05

tl;dr - The injuries depicted in the Salisbury Fire Department bulletin are consistent with reports of Necrotizing Soft Tissue Infection ("flesh-eating bacteria"). They are not consistent with reports of mercury poisoning.

I found this statement from Lighting Council Australia:

Alleged Mercury Poisoning From Stepping On A Broken Compact Fluorescent Lamp

There is no medical or other evidence in the internet material viewed by Lighting Council Australia that links the foot injury to mercury poisoning. Neither Lighting Council Australia nor its international colleagues in the Global Lighting Association is able to find any evidence that mercury could cause the injury depicted in the internet images. Accordingly Lighting Council Australia rejects the notion that the injury is the result of mercury poisoning. A more likely explanation is that the initial injury (which may or may not have been caused by stepping on a broken CFL) has been exacerbated by bacterial infection.

I did a search for medical articles related to bacterial infections and found the following article "Necrotizing Soft Tissue Infection of the Foot: A Case Report" which contains graphic images similar to those in the Salisbury Fire Department bulletin.

I also found two medical articles describing cases where people have injected themselves with mercury. Although both cases report abscesses around the injection site, the large scale tissue damage depicted in the Salisbury Fire Department bulletin was not present. The amounts of mercury injected in these two cases were massive compared to the amounts present in CFL bulbs.

Elemental mercury poisoning caused by subcutaneous and intravenous injection: An unusual self-injury

A 20-year-old man presented with diffuse chest pain for three days and moderate grade fever for one day with hemoptysis. About three months earlier he had injected approximately 5 ml of elemental mercury subcutaneously into his left forearm; in addition, seven days prior to presentation he had injected approximately 8-10 ml of elemental mercury (obtained from a sphygmomanometer) intravenously.

On examination, the patient was conscious, oriented, and afebrile. Puncture marks were seen in the left antecubital fossa. Abscess formation at the injection site and small amount of mercury could be seen coming out from the puncture sites. The blood urea, serum creatinine, and urine analysis were normal.

Auto-aggressive metallic mercury injection around the knee joint: a case report

sections of the specimen showed cicatricial tissue, granulomas caused by foreign bodies, multiple abscesses and black amorphous material (mercury depots) surrounded by the foreign-body reaction.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .