Compact Fluorescent bulbs have surged in popularity in recent years due to heightened awareness of environmental issues paired with the rising costs of energy.
Fluorescent bulbs are by far more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs, but on the flip side they contain mercury, a highly persistent neurotoxin and long-lived environmental contaminant that has the potential to build up in our food chain.
Mercury is an essential, irreplaceable element in a fluorescent lamp. It is what allows the lamp to be an efficient light source.
There is no way around it, and there would be practically no danger to the environment if the bulb was handled and disposed of properly. But when a fluorescent lamp breaks, either in the house or at the landfill, the mercury content is released.
Each compact fluorescent bulb only contains a minuscule amount of mercury (about as much as would fit on the period at the end of this sentence) and is not considered harmful to operate in a home. Even if a bulb should break in your home, there is no need to panic or call the authorities.

So, you broke a CFL, What now?
First open the windows and leave the room for 15 minutes or more to let it air out. Wearing disposable gloves use a piece of cardboard and damp paper towel to scoop up all pieces. Don’t use a vacuum cleaner. Put all pieces as well as your gloves in a ziplock bag and seal it. Now you can throw it in the trash. Wash your hands. – Done.Since each fluorescent bulb only contains very little mercury, it is more the accumulation of all the small bits of mercury in each bulbs which could become a real problem to the environment if sales balloon as expected. In spite of these facts it is nevertheless evident that a switch to compact fluorescent bulbs would actually reduce the release of mercury into the atmosphere.
Mercury in the air comes primarily from burning fossil fuels such as coal, the most common fuel used to produce electricity in the United States.
Because compact fluorescent lamps use up to 75 percent less energy than incandescent lamps and last up to 10 times longer, a coal burning power plant will release less mercury into the environment to produce the electricity for a compact fluorescent compared to an incandescent bulb in order to run both for the same length of time.
Light bulb manufacturers like GE and Sylvania are aware of the concerns with the mercury content in CFLs and fluorescent tubes and are committed to reducing the mercury content to less than the 5 mg standard set by the National Electrical Manufacturers. Over the last few years we have seen such a surge of new developments within this energy-saving category of bulbs, so we can only hope that we will see drastic reductions in the mercury content in the near future.

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One Response to “Fluorescent Bulbs and Mercury”

  • Great article. People just forget to properly handle CFLs. Check with your local municipal solid waste department. Most municipal landfills can handle disposal of small amounts of CFLs…but if you are a business and have lots of them, they must be handled as Universal Waste and sent to a recycler.