There have been increasing concerns about the mercury in compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and some people like these are making a big issue out of a relatively mundane event. Here is the story in short:
So, last month, the Prospect, Maine, resident went out and bought two dozen CFLs and began installing them in her home. One broke. A month later, her daughter’s bedroom remains sealed off with plastic like the site of a hazardous materials accident, while Bridges works on a way to pay off a $2,000 estimate by a company specializing in environmentally sound cleanups of the mercury inside the bulb.
The story was later criticized by a number of websites, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find people who still cite the $2000 story as an excuse to shy away from CFLs. A common conclusion (among the articles I read) was that the $2000 cleanup was really a bad piece of advice given by someone who didn’t know how to handle a broken CF bulb to an overly paranoid consumer who didn’t know how to handle a light bulb.
So yeah, in summary, no one needs $2000 to clean up a broken CF light bulb. What people need is more information to alleviate fears of mercury in the CF bulbs and instructions on to clean stuff up. In that spirit, here are a few questions and answers of common curiosity.
- Why do CFLs contain mercury?
Compact fluorescent bulbs are made of glass tubes filled with gas and a small amount of mercury. CFLs produce light when the mercury molecules are excited by electricity running between two electrodes in the base of the bulb. The mercury emits ultraviolet light, which in turn excites the tube’s phosphor coating, leading it to emit visible light.
Source: Popular Mechanics
- How much mercury is there in a typical CF light bulb?
CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing – an average of 5 milligrams, which is roughly equivalent to an amount that would cover the tip of a ball-point pen. No mercury is released when the bulbs are intact or in use. By comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury.
Source: Energystar.gov (pdf file)
- Why are people so concerned about the mercury in CF light bulbs?
Mercury in CFLs are present as elemental (or metallic) mercury. Once spilled, you can be exposed to elemental mercury by touching it, after which it can be eaten and/or absorbed through your skin. More importantly for health, you can also be exposed to mercury through the air, as elemental mercury vaporizes readily (essentially becomes a gas) and can thus be inhaled into your lungs. Breathing elemental mercury into your lungs is generally more dangerous than if you ate the mercury or absorbed it through your skin. Once inhaled, the mercury vapor can damage the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver.
- Why you shouldn’t panic if you accidentally break a CFL?
Although mercury is dangerous for your health, you don’t need to be too worried when it comes to the mercury in the CF bulbs. Treehugger.com shines some light on this issue.
…This is because CFLs contain relatively small amounts of mercury — EPA estimates this amount to be 4-5 milligrams (mg) in a typical CFL. A spill of this amount of mercury is not likely to present any excess risk to you or your family. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows why. [Note: This example is meant only as a quick and dirty example. It is not intended to represent every case nor every situation.] For example, we could imagine the following scenario:
A CFL containing 5 mg of mercury breaks in your child’s bedroom that has a volume of about 25 m3 (which corresponds to a medium sized bedroom). The entire 5 mg of mercury vaporizes immediately (an unlikely occurrence), resulting in an airborne mercury concentration in this room of 0.2 mg/m3. This concentration will decrease with time, as air in the room leaves and is replaced by air from outside or from a different room. As a result, concentrations of mercury in the room will likely approach zero after about an hour or so.
Under these relatively conservative assumptions, this level and duration of mercury exposure is not likely to be dangerous, as it is lower than the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard of 0.05 mg/m3 of metallic mercury vapor averaged over eight hours.
Source: Treehugger.com [The above quoted answer is an excerpt from a reply by Helen Suh MacIntosh who is a professor in environmental health at Harvard University]
- What should you do if you break a CF light bulb?
Instead of a $2000 cleanup, try these simple steps.
According to EPA guidelines:
- Open a window and leave the room (restrict access) for at least 15 minutes.
- Remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner.
- Wear disposable rubber gloves, if available (do not use your bare hands).
- Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard.
- Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe.
- Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.
- Place all cleanup materials in a plastic bag and seal it.
- If your state permits you to put used or broken fluorescent light bulbs in the garbage, seal the bulb in two plastic bags and put into the outside trash (if no other disposal or recycling options are available).
- Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.
- The first time you vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag once done cleaning the area (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag and/or vacuum debris, as well as the cleaning materials, in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.
Btw, I should mention here that the guidelines above are for CFLs only - which contain very tiny amount of mercury. For larger spills (for example, from an old thermometer), the instructions are quite different.
On point #3 above, EPA doesn’t mention what options to consider before you decide to throw the bulbs in the garbage. The first thing to do is to find if there is a recycling facility nearby that accepts used or broken CF bulbs. Here are four resources to help you locate such a facility:
- EPA list of mercury containing bulb recycling programs. (as far as I know, this list has more options than the Earth 911 list below)
- Earth 911 (this link will take you to the Earth 911 homepage - there, look for the “search” option near the top of the page).
- State lamp recycling contacts - LampRecycle.org
- IKEA “Free Take Back” program. If you have an IKEA near you, it will have a recycle bin for CF bulbs. Here is what IKEA says on it’s website.
Bring your used mercury containing lightbulbs to the IKEA store for free disposal. Since our CFL bulbs contain a small amount of mercury, they should not be simply tossed out. IKEA offers the perfect solution: a ‘Free Take Back’ program offering recycle bins in all IKEA stores.
If none of these 4 bullet points work for you, then go with the #3 option given by EPA - dump it in the trash after sealing it in two plastic bags.
- If CFLs contain mercury which poses an environmental hazard, why are governments and *green* organization promoting these things?
This will give you the big picture behind the whole pro-CFL efforts:
Ironically, CFLs present an opportunity to prevent mercury from entering our air, where it most affects our health. The highest source of mercury in our air comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal, the most common fuel used in the U.S. to produce electricity. A CFL uses 75% less energy than an incandescent light bulb and lasts at least 6 times longer. A power plant will emit 10mg of mercury to produce the electricity to run an incandescent bulb compared to only 2.4mg of mercury to run a CFL for the same time.
Source: NEMA.org (pdf file) [NEMA = National Electrical Manufacturers Association]
So, the next time someone tells you that a broken light bulb takes $2000 to cleanup, just send them over here to this article.
Resources and more reading material
- Mercury Fact Sheet - some useful information about mercury in CFLs (energystar.gov)
- Mercury - Hazards, Precautions, and Pollution Prevention - UC Berkeley
- Handling Mercury Safely - Purdue.edu
- A similar article on this issue written by a blogger friend.
Fun fact: just to give you a feel for numbers according to this report, on an average, a pound of lobster contains about 0.08 milligrams of mercury and a pound of Albacore Tuna fish contains about 0.35 milligrams of mercury.