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The Straight Dope



The other day at work I saw a fluorescent light bulb crash to the ground and shatter. When I started picking up the pieces, a coworker warned me to be very careful, saying there was a highly toxic chemical inside fluorescent tubes and one cut meant certain death. This is something I've heard before. Just what is this mystery chemical? Is it really as deadly as I've been led to believe? --Patrick Zepeda

Not unless you've got some really old fluorescent tubes, and even then they wouldn't kill you. Prior to 1950 or so the white coating inside the tubes, a kind of chemical compound called a phosphor, contained a beryllium compound that retarded healing. If you cut yourself on a broken tube the cut would never close. The main threat was to workers in light bulb factories, and it was mostly for their benefit that the compound was removed.

The light bulb industry claims the coating used inside today's bulbs is safe. A five-year study of the stuff conducted by the Industrial Hygiene Foundation of the Mellon Institute found no harmful effects on animals due to eating, inhaling, touching, etc. The folks at General Electric, a leading maker of fluorescent tubes, say they've had no reports of toxic effects on humans from users during the 40 years their products have been beryllium-free.

That's not to say there's nothing to worry about. The phosphor is typically calcium chlorofluorophosphate containing small amounts of antimony and manganese. The latter two chemicals are listed as hazardous materials by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has set workplace exposure limits. Prior to 1988 some GE tubes contained small amounts of barium and cadmium, which are also hazardous--cadmium compounds, in fact, are suspected of being carcinogenic. But the danger, which arises from long-term exposure, is to factory workers, not consumers. In any case, GE no longer uses barium and cadmium.

Finally, all fluorescent tubes contain small amounts of liquid mercury, which turns to vapor when the lamp is switched on. Mercury is toxic if your body absorbs enough of it, but the small quantity in a tube usually disperses quickly if the lamp breaks. If you broke a whole carload of tubes--I remember as a youth hoisting a brace of bulbs over my shoulder without realizing there was a spinning fan directly overhead--well, you could have problems. (Who knows, maybe even brain damage, which in my case certainly explains last year's Monty Hall disaster.) But under ordinary circumstances the danger is vanishingly small.


Perhaps the enclosed clipping will put an end to your agnosticism about map companies inventing fictitious geographic detail for copyright purposes. --Robert Carlson, Los Angeles

Reader Carlson encloses a clipping from the March 22, 1981, Los Angeles Times about the Thomas Brothers map company, which publishes maps of southern California. The article says:

"[Thomas Brothers vice president Barry Elias admits] that the company sprinkles fictitious names throughout its guides. . . . 'We put them in for copyright reasons,' he said. 'If someone is reproducing one of our maps (as with a photocopier) and selling them, we can prove an infringement.'

"Of course, the make-believe streets are little ones. The mythical avenues normally run no longer than a block, dead end, and are shown with broken lines (as though they are under construction).

"Elias revealed that the guides for San Bernardino and Riverside counties have the heaviest concentration of fictitious streets--'between 100 and 200. . . . We try to come up with names that would fit in with the area [such as La Taza Drive and Loma Drive]. . . . Spanish sounding names are very big now.'"

So that accounts for all those lost-looking folks you see around LA--they have Thomas maps. And all this time you thought it was just drugs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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