CFLs: What About Mercury?

Everyone’s talking about compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and how great they are because they save energy and money. But have you heard that CFLs contain mercury, which is hazardous waste?

So how safe and eco-friendly are they, really? We have answers from the experts.

Q: How can CFLs be good if they contain mercury?

A: Mercury conjures up images of everything from poisoned fish to mad hatters. So why is it in CFLs?

Because it’s a key element that makes them an efficient light source. Unfortunately, there’s no better substitute right now. (Other options have been — and are being — tried.)

“There’s no such thing as an artificial light source without environmental impacts,” says Vicki Calwell, lighting and mercury consultant at Ecos Consulting in Durango, Colo., and one of the nation’s leading experts on CFLs and mercury. “We have to assess the whole picture, and right now CFLs are winners.”

Calwell adds that, while mercury poisoning is very serious, there is on average just 3.5 to 4.5 milligrams of mercury in one CFL, about the size of the dot over an “i” in this sentence. That’s a lot less than you’ll find in a thermometer (500mg), tilt thermostat (3g) or dental amalgam (500mg).

CFLs cause less mercury contamination than incandescents, even though incandescents contain no mercury. Seem counter-intuitive? Consider this: CFLs reduce electricity usage, and most electricity is produced at coal-fired power plants. Because CFLs are 75 percent more efficient than incandescents, producing the electricity needed to power an incandescent bulb causes four times the mercury pollution than does producing the power to run an equivalent CFL.

What should I do if a CFL breaks in my home?

You may have heard the story of a woman in Maine who broke a CFL in her home and was told that it would cost $2,000 to clean it up. Calwell says that woman was given some poor advice — and she notes that government agencies could do a better job at getting the word out about what to do when a CFL breaks in your home.

Calwell says it’s not necessary to call your local poison control office or the EPA if you break a CFL. She suggests following these Energy Star guidelines for cleaning up broken CFLs:

  1. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes.

  2. Slip on some disposable rubber gloves (don’t use your bare hands) and scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard.

  3. Use duct tape to grab any remaining slivers and powder.

  4. Wipe the area clean with a damp rag, paper towel or disposable wet wipe. If the bulb broke on carpet, vacuum the area where it broke, then immediately remove the vacuum bag or clean out the canister.

  5. Put all cleanup materials into a plastic bag, seal it, and take it to your local household hazardous waste recycling center — or seal it in two plastic bags and put it in the trash if there are no other recycling options (and if it’s legal in your state).

  6. Wash your hands well after disposing of the bag.

For more information on broken-CFL cleanup and mercury, visit the Energy Star website.

How should I dispose of burned-out CFLs?

Right now, there’s no one-stop, national recycling program for spent CFLs. Curbside recycling won’t work because CFLs are too fragile and would break during pickup and emit mercury.

Recyclers, retailers, government organizations and environmental groups are working hard on putting an easy-to-use CFL-recycling system in place.

Meanwhile, before you toss that used CFL in the trash, find out through your local household hazardous waste program whether it’s legal to trash CFLs in your state. And DON’T throw CFLs in an incinerator or burn them with garbage. The mercury will be released when they burn.

Here are some options:

  1. Calwell suggests putting each used CFL in a sealed plastic bag and storing the lot of them in a padded box in your garage until a convenient recycling program is in place. She expects to see this happen within the next two years.

  2. Put each CFL in a sealed plastic bag, gather the bags carefully in a container with packing material so they won’t break, and take them to your local household hazardous waste recycling center. (We know it’s inconvenient, but come on — the bulbs last five to seven years.) Only 2 percent of us currently use these household drop-off sites, says Paul Abernathy, executive director of the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers.

  3. Since 2001, IKEA has been the only major retailer in the U.S. to offer a free CFL recycling program, including recycling bins, in all of its stores. In its 2006 fiscal year, IKEA recycled 156,301 pounds of CFLs. To find a store near you, visit the IKEA Web site.


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hildow's picture
User offline. Last seen 8 years 48 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 08/23/2007

There is no safe amount of mercury.
A better option would be an LED light. Hopefully they will come down in price.

Everett's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 47 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 09/27/2006

Sorry but I'm just not convinced. Like the commenter below said, there is NO safe amount of mercury and for now I'm going to stick to my old-school bulbs until something better - like LEDs - become a viable option.

GranolaJoe's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 39 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 04/17/2007

I've used CFLs since way before they were ever "in fashion" as of about 3 years ago. I've never had one break or cause me any grief. In fact, the only thing they've done for me is LAST FOR YEARS, which is exactly what I ask from them.

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