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Compact Fluorescents, Mercury and the Environment

Compact Fluorescents, Mercury and the Environment

Q: I’ve switched to compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), but I’ve read they contain mercury. Doesn’t that preclude their benefit for the environment, and what about the health hazards? –Sarah, Buffalo, NY

A: We face a classic trade-off dilemma in our choice of light bulbs: does the 2/3 less energy that CFLs use compared to standard incandescents outweigh the mercury pollution they contribute?

CFLs contain small amounts of mercury to allow the bulb to have such a long life. To put the amount in perspective, a CFL has 4 mg of mercury compared to a fever thermometer’s 500 mg. But mercury is highly neurotoxic even at low doses, and the mercury in CFLs surely adds up to be a big problem in the environment because hundreds of millions of fluorescent bulbs are discarded each year.

The best choice for the environment is to choose light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs whenever possible (more about these, below). When comparing CFLs and incandescents the answer is that CFLs are the best win for the environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 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. Low-mercury CFLs are now available, and we need to choose those and to dispose of CFLs properly.

If a CFL breaks, the EPA recommended protocol for handling the mercury is not to use your hands or a vacuum cleaner, but to sweep it up, and then wipe the area where it spilled with a damp paper towel. Open nearby windows for ventilation of the vapors.

Recommendations & Resources
* Philips ALTO brand offers low mercury bulbs.

• Green architect Eric Corey reports that one brand of CFLs, Greenlite, can be dimmed, which is good to know for those frustrated because this type of bulb generally can’t be dimmed.
Learn more here.

• LED lighting is incredibly long-lasting and mercury-free. Recent improvements in manufacturing have enabled them to be more practical for the home market. Learn more about LEDs here.

• Contact your local household hazardous waste station or Earth911.org to find out how to dispose of CFLs in your community, and to find out your state’s requirements.

Energy Star’s FAQ’s about CFLs

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Annie B. Bond

Annie is a renowned expert in non-toxic and green living. She was named one of the top 20 environmental leaders by Body and Soul Magazine and "the foremost expert on green living." - Body & Soul Magazine, 2009. Learn Annie's latest eco-friendly news on anniebbond.com, a website dedicated to healthy and green living.

106 comments

+ add your own
1:51AM PST on Feb 1, 2014

Didn't realize there might be "vapors".

10:24AM PDT on Mar 19, 2012

Thanks.

12:51PM PDT on Oct 21, 2011

Thanks!~

9:57AM PDT on Oct 16, 2011

Thanks for the info!~

5:18AM PDT on May 23, 2011

Thanks for the article.

3:29PM PDT on May 7, 2011

thanks!

4:23PM PST on Jan 11, 2011

There are negatives and positives about almost everything. You can find experts on both sides who swear that they're right. Good information.

10:59AM PST on Dec 16, 2010

Thanks.

12:08AM PDT on Sep 4, 2010

I used to use these until I learned the truth. I even bought a bargain multipak from Sams club. The person who checks the merchandise at the exit door stuck the package on the side of the cart. It fell out in the parking lot. One of the bulbs broke. I just put the package back into the cart. I didn't have time to return it and complain, so I took it home. I emptied the broken bulb into the waste basket. I didn't know. My kids, grandkids, and great grand kids (including the one not yet born) all visit me.

I can't believe a crowd who raises cane about GMOs and DDT, would let this slide. Since I know the truth, none of those toxic pieces of crap will ever make it past my threshhold. I don't care how much money it costs. I will hold out for something safer. Maybe LED will fill the bill, but I need to do more careful research. I have learned my lesson. Have you?

7:08AM PDT on Sep 1, 2010

Disposing of CFLs properly:
Never throw broken or burned-out CFLs in the trash. Contact your municipal collection program to learn about proper disposal options or check the EPA’s bulb recycling Web site or www.earth911.org for nearby recycling and disposal sites. Many major retailers, including Ikea and Home Depot, accept CFLs for recycling.

If a CFL bulb breaks, open windows to allow volatile mercury vapors to escape, and keep people and pets away for at least 15 minutes. Wear gloves, a dust mask and old clothes when scooping up the bulb fragments. Seal the waste in a glass jar with a tight lid. Pat the area with sticky tape to collect tiny mercury splinters and dust, then wipe with dampened paper towels or baby wipes. Place wipes or towels in the jar with the bulb. Properly dispose of the jar and its contents, and also dispose of any materials (towels, bedding, clothing, etc.) that came in contact with the bulb or its dust. These should be discarded, not laundered, because mercury particles could contaminate the washing machine or the water flowing into the sewage system.

If a bulb breaks on a carpet, the EPA recommends vacuuming it and then cleaning the vacuum. However, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) conducted several tests and concluded that vacuuming stirs up room air and can result in elevated mercury levels in the air. Moreover, using the vacuum elsewhere in the house could spread the mercury to other rooms. The Maine DEP suggests

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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