Things You Should Know About Mercury In CF Light Bulbs

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.

Source: Treehugger.com

  • 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:

  1. Open a window and leave the room (restrict access) for at least 15 minutes.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  • Earth 911 (this link will take you to the Earth 911 homepage - there, look for the “search” option near the top of the page).

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

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.

13 Comment(s)

  1. Thank you for taking the time to help stop this fear-mongering - I love CFLs!

    Jared Harley | Jun 24, 2007 | Reply

  2. Mercury is THAT life-threatening? Man, I wish someone had told me that when I was younger. We used to think it was a great toy. You can run it around in your hand and it looks and feels really cool. It’s a wonder I’m not dead or mentally retarded after playing with it without using rubber gloves, washing my hands, or sealing it in double plastic bags.

    Jim | Aug 17, 2007 | Reply

  3. I visited the same websites and found the same data. I am doing a project for my environmental science class, and I think your site does a good job of stringing it all together. nice.

    Mindy | Oct 18, 2007 | Reply

  4. This is all good and fine for people with healthy immune systems. My son already has a toxic load of mercury from the lovely immunizations being pushed on us. I would rather wait for LED lights to become more accessable and save the mercury for another debate.

    Jill Mitchell | Apr 25, 2008 | Reply

  5. My advice to all is not to use CFL’s at all and simply change to LED lighting. Lasts 10 times longer; much lower CO2; no Mercury at all.

    George | May 12, 2008 | Reply

  6. I agree the push should be for LED lighting. More demand and they will eventually become cheaper.

    CFL’s are a false economy environmentally and let’s be honest, people aren’t going to follow the disposal rules all the time, are they? Get real. How many will just be thrown in the trash?

    The clean up procedures are a nightmare. Why on earth should people have to put themselves through all that when there are alternatives.

    It’s a bandwagon and an unsafe one at that.

    Annie | May 25, 2008 | Reply

  7. Let’s forget about the mercury content of these bulbs for just a moment. I’d like to tell you about my experience with the every-day use of these bulbs. I’ve had three of these bulbs (Sylvania 60w/13W twisty bulbs) burn out in my home. All three times there was a hissing sound, then white smoke came out of the base of the glass tubing, then the hard plastic housing that the glass bulb is attached to has melted in spots. The first bulb that burned out showed the glass had separated from the housing. The bulb that burned out today actually glowed red for a moment at the base of the glass until I turned the light fixture off.

    And you say these are not dangerous? Are you kidding me?

    I think I’ll package up this latest bulb and send if off to President Bush who has been led down a “rosy” path in mandating that we replace all our incandescent bulbs with these. I’d like to know what he thinks about the “burnt electrical smell” that still lingers on this bulb.

    Let me just be clear here. These bulbs did not break while being removed, they just burned out after approximately one year of use. And no, they were not from the same package or purchased at the same time or place. So you can’t assume it was a “bad run” of bulbs. Also, they were in light fixtures that were rated for 60 watt bulbs so it’s not like the bulb was too powerful for the fixture either.

    From my experience with these bulbs so far, it’s clear there is a SAFETY ISSUE and a POSSIBLE FIRE HAZARD with the use of CFL bulbs. This is not “fear-mongering”, I’m just telling it like it is…

    Cheryl | Oct 14, 2008 | Reply

  8. I am against the mandate to replace all bulbs with the inferior light produced by the more expensive CF bulbs. If the greenies want to use then, fine, but don’t force me to use them.

    Mike | Feb 3, 2009 | Reply

  9. I’ve been using CFL’s for about 9 years now, so I’ve personally watched the technology get better and better. Unfortunately, while the price get’s lower and lower in competition, so does the quality of the bulb. You have to watch what you buy. Quality is safety, but you don’t want to burn your wallet either. I’m planning on switching to LED’s, but I want to stick with the Edison screw base. So far the ones I’ve got my eye on is still around $45.00 per bulb!!! Whereas I can get a 6-pack of CFL’s for $15.00. Errr… that 5 mg of mercury doesn’t sound so scary anymore, does it? But hey, my overall experience with CFL’s is satisfactory. They really do last longer and lower my power bill. - Oh, one more thing, regarding a CFL fire hazard… Cheaper bulbs use cheaper ballasts. The bulb itself is fine, but the ballast in the base can burn out. After the CFL get some burn hours on it and it starts acting funny, like a quick blink when you first turn them on, or an extra delay before they start burning, then this is your first clue you’ve bought a lemon. Do not force it to burn, unless you just want to see a cool fire show later. Use some common sense and replace the bulb before it explodes. Sorry, you were tricked into buying a generic CFL.

    Tim | Apr 23, 2009 | Reply

  10. A few days ago, 6 MAY 09, I observed the second CFL go out and up in smoke. The area where the glass goes into the base was chared and the smell was awful and soon filled the entire house. Not sure what toxins I have inhaled. Every name brand of these bulbs I’ve seen are made in China. If the fumes didn’t have mercury in them I’m sure there was lead in the smoke. Had I not been in the room I’m sure this could have burst into flames in a matter of minutes.

    I’ve seen this happen twice now. I’ll never buy or install them again

    Tom | May 9, 2009 | Reply

  11. Just had this same experience this evening. We’ve bought lots of CFLs over the last couple of years and have not had a lot of success. Most burned out immediately when we put them in (no I didn’t overload) or within a couple of days. Today’s bulb has been in for a couple of months. It popped, hissed, smoked, and, I thought, was going to burn our house down! These were GE bulbs!!! I’m going back to the old bulbs. Get em while they’re hot! Or at least cooler than the CFLs in my home. As a side note, I have asthma and am wondering how bad my breathing is going to get since my husband and I inhaled huge quantities of the smell trying to figure out where it was coming from!!!!!
    Go Green! Eat a salad!

    Megan | Jun 17, 2009 | Reply

  12. I will tell you all why the push for CFL!
    the utility companies!
    remember the rolling blackouts?
    well the only way to prevent the blackouts is by upgrading/updating the electrical grid infrastructure which would cost trillions of dollars!
    Utility companies and the public could not afford the cost upfront and then passed on to the public to pay for that upgrade-the owners of the companies will not take a pay cut nor the shareholders take a hit on the dividends doled out to them by their investments-to pay for that upgrade-the owners of the utilities(shareholders board members exec’s)are the same who own the media conglomerates and have paid politicians and lobbyist’s in DC!
    these are the richest/ruling/controlling people/families in the world-they will not foot the bill to upgrade the infrastructure for the masses!
    so how do you prolong that eventual upgrade? how to get lower power usage? to prolong the eventual meltdown???
    get people to switch everything to GREEN TECHNOLOGY CFL’s which are a mercury timebomb waiting to happen. here is a link to an article stating the dangers from [1] bulb
    http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/financialpost/story.html?id=aa7796aa-e4a5-4c06-be84-b62dee548fda
    in Maine they Govt has determined that…
    quote”As each CFL contains five milligrams of mercury, at the Maine “safety” standard of 300 nanograms per cubic meter, it would take 16,667 cubic meters of soil to “safely” contain all the mercury in a single CFL.”end quote

    i have managed amongst me and the workers in my renovated home to break 3 CFL’s in 8 months in my home-exposing my family and I to horrific levels of Mecury!
    there should be a class action lawsuit and a ban of CFL’s in residential applications!!!
    it was and is a criminal conspiracy to sell such a dangerous item to the unaware, trusting and gullible general public!
    [1] each CFL is a mercury timebomb!
    [2]companies selling and manufacturing such a dangerous household item should be on the hook for the disposal, cleanup and replacement of each CFL sold to homeowners/renters around the world
    [3]ban all light-bulbs containing mercury to the general public and setup ridgid containment & disposal regime’s for all industrial and small business owners -if disposal terms are not followed then heavy fines should be levied

    CFL’s=bad idea-period!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    TD | Nov 25, 2009 | Reply

  13. Bad for when you only want to go into a room for a minute but good after it’s fully brightened. I don’t like the delay.

    Heather | Feb 18, 2010 | Reply

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  1. Jun 24, 2007: from The Sunday Review #26
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