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What a great question! I recently had someone try to state that an interpretive article I posted from an alternate news source was false. This retort was based on a posting from Snopes, so evidently this was supposed to be the end of the conversation. Well, obviously this person didn’t know me very well.

My note here today is not to debate the article’s content because I believe the article served its purpose of exploring the worst-case scenario of the topic at hand… not what was going to be a reality. The truth of the matter is that no one can see the future. I enjoyed the article because it did a great job of exploring cause and effect on a hot topic. So regardless of what comes about, I found it necessary to share based on the idea that we should always be wary of the possibilities of an action… not just the intent of an action.

That being said, I thought it was important to give “Snopes” some time because I feel that people need to know the truth. First of all, Snopes is not some kind of supergiant like Microsoft, filled to the brim with researchers, lawyers, and fact-checkers. It’s not even a well-staffed think-tank. For that matter, I would say that An American Warning TV has a bigger staff of researchers. Snopes isn’t even comprised of journalists or even people with an amazing amount of access to sources that no one else is privy to.

Nope… instead, it is a website that comprises the work of David and Barbara Mikkelson, living in a Los Angeles suburb. And to be clear, these folks have no formal background in investigation and have the same access and often use the same sources most people can find on the internet – in other words… they are capable of being false, misled or even bias. Why? Because their sources are capable of being false, misled, or even bias.

Shocked? Don’t be… they are people too. And the point of this post is not to say that everything they post is wrong, but considering their sources and their abilities, I’m merely saying that you shouldn’t take everything they say as gold. Probably the best reason is that Snopes has been wrong from time to time. It’s not to say that their service isn’t needed or even valued, I’m just saying it can be flawed and once you start believing something 100% without question is usually when you can get yourself into trouble.

The Mikkelson’s admit, however, that Snopes is only as reliable as the sources it cites, and they invite readers to look for the truth themselves. In fact, the Snopes FAQ page states “We don’t expect anyone to accept us as the ultimate authority on any topic, which is why our site’s name indicates that it contains reference pages.” So this really just reiterates my point.

Perhaps it’s the perception of value. People believe it, therefore, it must be true. You have to understand that Snopes has been known to be wrong and has changed their listings on several occasions. That by itself demonstrates a lack of perfection. And once again, it’s not to take away from their work… I’m merely saying that if Snopes says something… it doesn’t mean you get to stop looking for answers. You just get to use them as yet another source to back up your position.

Once again, they are using the same sources available to you and they might just change their mind and their listing if they come across more compelling evidence on a topic, which they have done in the past. Just like you really… you will have your position in mind until more compelling evidence is presented. So are you perfect, are you the end-all when it comes to news and information? So why or how can you expect that of David and Barbara Mikkelson?

Take it for what it’s worth, take them for what they are worth, and never expect perfection.

Of course, some of you would probably like to see how fallible Snopes can really be. “Can David Debunk the Debunkers?” – It’s not like that, but yes I can and I will provide you an example to illustrate my point. But please try to understand that I do have a background in investigations and research, so this isn’t exactly a fair game to play. I do this to demonstrate my point, not destroy them because as I said, they are a valuable source… at times. So let’s begin.

I’ve decided to explore a topic I’m rather passionate about. CFL’s or Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs.

Snopes (at the time of this entry) claims that the amount of mercury in a CFL does NOT pose a grave danger to a home’s inhabitants and that the mercury dispersed by a broken CFL bulb doesn’t need to be dealt with only by an environmental cleanup crew.

So before I disprove this, let me explain how I stumbled across this one topic in particular. Snopes was investigating claims that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was covering up safety concerns with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL’s). In determining the concerns were a myth, however, Snopes cited as evidence, the EPA. (RED FLAG)

This actually just angers me for two reasons. 1) It’s misleading because the questions are wrong. And 2) The EPA is the US Environmental Protection Agency, an agency of the U.S. federal government, the same entity pushing the CFL’s. So, I don’t know about you, but this is actually considered bias reporting. This would be like asking the Used Car Salesman if the Used Car you were about to buy was mechanically sound. If this was a good idea, CARFAX wouldn’t be in business and used car salesmen wouldn’t have a reputation.

Anyway, one has to ask basic questions when trying to find the truth. Let’s start with the first: does the amount of mercury in a CFL pose a grave danger to a home’s inhabitants?

Let’s take this question at face value. Grave Danger is used for emphasizing how serious something is. It is often implied to mean a “deadly” danger but really means a serious threat. At the very least, we can assume it means a severe health hazard. A home’s inhabitants might include people or pets. So, the question is does the amount of mercury in a CFL pose a severe health hazard to people or pets?

Snopes says no! And Snopes is wrong! – The EPA even states that upon breaking even a single bulb that everyone else should leave the area; you shouldn’t let anyone walk through the mercury on their way out. You should make sure all pets are removed from the area, open all windows and doors to the outside; shut all doors to other parts of the house. You shouldn’t allow children to help you clean up the spill. Finally, if a spill occurs on carpet, curtains, upholstery or other absorbent surfaces, these contaminated items should be thrown away in accordance with Hazmat procedures and this includes the affected portion of the contaminated carpet for disposal. You’re not even supposed to wash the clothes you were wearing because of the contamination that will ensue.

So why all this trouble for something that poses no danger? Obviously it does pose a danger, hence the precautions. (Basic Logic, Cause, and Effect, Occam’s Razor) It’s because it can cause a severe health hazard if the situation is not handled correctly. Snopes is obviously inaccurate. My question is “how the hell could they miss that?”. Even quick research will demonstrate the possibility of Acrodynia among other things when exposed. It should also be noted that exposure to the toxic effects of mercury includes damage to the brain, kidney, and lungs. Mercury poisoning can result in several diseases, including acrodynia (pink disease), Hunter-Russell syndrome, and Minamata disease. Mercury is in CFL’s – hopefully we are on the same page here.

But Snopes doesn’t think this can happen from a single CFL breakage. Wrong again! According to the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, medical attention was sought for a 23-month-old toddler because of anorexia, weight loss, irritability, profuse sweating, peeling and redness of his fingers and toes, and a miliarial rash. The diagnosis was mercury poisoning, and an investigation of his environment disclosed that he had been exposed to mercury from broken fluorescent light bulbs. Sorry to say… but if it’s happened even once… chances are it’s happened again. Furthermore, it’s safe to assume that many instances of similar events have gone unreported and/or perhaps these cases weren’t properly diagnosed.

And just so we are on the same page, I’m not just assuming. An estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of all health cases are misdiagnosed. One report found that 28 percent of 583 diagnostic mistakes were life-threatening or had resulted in death or permanent disability. Another study estimated that fatal diagnostic errors in U.S. intensive care units equal the number of breast cancer deaths each year — 40,500. So yes… not being properly diagnosed is a possibility.

And yes, there are other examples of CFL related cases but the preceding just demonstrates that there is a grave danger to a home’s inhabitants (as well as the environment) with even just the smallest break of a CFL. One case is enough.

How about the question of whether or not mercury dispersed by a broken CFL bulb “needs” to be dealt with only by an environmental cleanup crew.

Let me ask you a question. If you didn’t realize that something was a health hazard, would you address it as one? With the Media and Snopes saying it’s not an issue… do you think people are approaching it as one? The way Snopes approaches this topic is ridiculous. At the very least, is this not a personal recommendation? Should you not have your car worked on by a licensed mechanic? Should your AC unit maintenance perhaps include someone who knows what they are doing? Should your doctor have gone to school?

Let me reiterate the previous answer. The EPA states that upon breaking even a single bulb that everyone else should leave the area; you shouldn’t let anyone walk through the mercury on their way out. You should make sure all pets are removed from the area, open all windows and doors to the outside; shut all doors to other parts of the house. You shouldn’t allow children to help you clean up the spill. Finally, if a spill occurs on carpet, curtains, upholstery or other absorbent surfaces, these contaminated items should be thrown away in accordance with Hazmat procedures and this includes the affected portion of the contaminated carpet for disposal. You’re not even supposed to wash the clothes you were wearing because of the contamination that will ensue.

It sounds to me like the common person probably SHOULDN’T be messing around with this… just saying. Can they do it? Sure they can! Anyone can be and do anything they want in this country. Snopes uses the phrase “NEEDS to be dealt with ONLY by an environmental cleanup crew”. Yes, technically this is accurate but this isn’t the answer that was sought and any logical thinker could see this. I can split hairs all day long too if you wanted me to. The fact remains that it SHOULD be cleaned up by someone who knows what they are doing and knows what all needs to be discarded in a hazmat manner.

The fact remains that broken CFL’s need to be handled with EXTREME CARE and very strict procedures need to be followed in removing a broken CFL and its contents from your environment. My question is exactly how many people who purchase these light bulbs are taught about the safety procedures necessary to protect themselves, their environment, and the other inhabitants of the home?

Let me provide you an example of what I mean. You break a bulb on the carpet floor. Maybe you were aware that these were as toxic as I’m describing here today. You clean it up the best you can. You even vent the room like you are supposed to because you know that a short period of venting can, in most cases, significantly reduce the mercury air concentrations after breakage. But did you know that concentrations can sometimes rebound when rooms are no longer vented, particularly with certain types of lamps and during/after vacuuming? But it’s true, this of course if you want to believe the Maine Compact Fluorescent Lamp Breakage Study Report.

Of course, not all exposure is going to kill right then and there, but does that mean your health is any less affected? Sometimes it’s just an adverse reaction such as those who suffer from migraines, skin problems, epilepsy, and electrical sensitivity.

Interestingly, even the British Dermatological Association has spoken out against CFL bulbs because their patients have adverse reactions to them. They are asking the UK government to allow people with skin problems to continue using incandescent light bulbs once the ban for energy-inefficient bulbs becomes law. Why would do this if there wasn’t evidence to suggest that there might be a problem?

Once again… take it for what it’s worth. Personally, I trust Snopes about as much I trust any other website out there.

Fact check the fact-checkers. Research for yourself because even the Mikkelsons admit, that Snopes is only as reliable as the sources it cites. 

Resources for this article: 

  • National Center for Policy Analysis. (2013, May 08). Physicians misdiagnose at an alarming rate. Retrieved from http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=23148
  • Jignesh Parmar, Institution of Engineers (2012, Feb 13). Dark and bright side of cfl bulbs (is it dangerous to our health?). Retrieved from http://electricalnotes.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/dark-and-bright-side-of-cfl-bulbs-is-it-dangerous-to-our-health/
  • Maine department of environmental protection. (2008, Feb). Maine compact fluorescent lamp breakage study report . Retrieved from http://www.maine.gov/dep/homeowner/cflreport.html
  • Acrodynia: Exposure to Mercury From Fluorescent Light Bulbs – Pediatrics Vol. 79 No. 5 May 1, 1987 pp. 786 -789 – Walter W. Tunnessen Jr, – Keven J. McMahon, Michael Baser – From the Department of Pediatrics, State University of New York-Health Science Center, Syracuse, and the Occupational Health Section, Bureau of Environmental Epidemiology and Occupational Health, New York State Department of Health, Albany
  • US Environmental Protection Agency. (2013, July 24). Mercury releases and spills. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/mercury/spills/index.htm
  • Clifton JC 2nd (2007). “Mercury exposure and public health”. Pediatr Clin North Am 54 (2): 237–69, viii. doi:10.1016/j.pcl.2007.02.005. PMID 17448359.
  • Bjørklund G (1995). “Mercury and Acrodynia”. Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine 10 (3 & 4): 145–146.
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