The debate over the eco-friendliness of CFLs has garnered a lot of media attention lately, largely due to the bulbs’ mercury content and the fate of all that mercury once it winds up in landfills or if the bulbs get broken inside a home.
The amount of mercury in CFLs is relatively small, approximately 5 milligrams (mg), which is roughly equivalent to the mercury in two cans of albacore tuna. Older mercury-based thermometers contained about 500 mg.
In order to get a complete picture of mercury in light bulbs, however, you have to look at both the mercury inside the bulbs and the mercury emitted by power plants that provide their electricity. Incandescents require substantially more power to operate, and coal-fired power plants release huge amounts of mercury—along with other hazardous heavy metals such as lead and arsenic—into the atmosphere. From there, mercury travels to oceans and waterways, where it accumulates in fish and then returns to your home when those fish wind up on your plate.
Depending on where you live (and the mixture of your local energy supplier), you could be releasing as much as 18 mg of mercury into the atmosphere to operate one incandescent bulb over its lifespan. A CFL, on the other hand, produces an estimated 4 mg over its lifespan as a result of burning coal (9 mg total when added to the 5 mg that exist in the bulb). If one billion incandescent light bulbs were replaced with CFLs, we could prevent 100 million grams of mercury emissions.
In the end, you’re exposed to much less mercury by switching to CFLs than you are if you keep using incandescents, even in the unfortunate event that one breaks in your home. . To avoid inhaling mercury vapors if a bulb does break, the EPA advises opening a window as soon as possible and leaving the room for at least 15 minutes before starting to clean. Once you start:
• Never allow children or pregnant women near the spill area.
• Always wear rubber gloves; you should never touch mercury with your bare hands.
• Remove all metal jewelry, which might attract mercury magnetically.
• If the bulb breaks on hard flooring, use a piece of stiff paper to scoop up the broken glass and powder. Avoid using a broom that could stir up dust.
• Damp mop hard surfaces to pick up any remaining dust.
• If the bulb breaks on carpeting, use sticky tape to pick up the powder, dust and smaller pieces of glass. Vacuuming could disturb the dust and pose an inhalation risk.
• Afterwards, shine a flashlight to double check the area for missed spots.
• Seal all the rags, paper and tape, as well as the light bulb remains, in a plastic bag. Double bag it, and dispose at a household hazardous waste site. See www.earth911.org for one in your neighborhood.
• Wash your hands well and leave the room.
• Leave the window open and turn on a fan to air out the room for at least 24 to 48 hours.
• If you’ve touched mercury or are concerned about your exposure, call the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222.
Because they contain so little mercury, broken bulbs usually don’t need to be cleaned up professionally. The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health recommends seeking professional help when mercury spills are larger than two tablespoons, which is a much higher amount than that contained within CFLs.
Broken or not, all spent CFLs should be taken to household hazardous waste sites (you can find one near your home at www.earth911.org) or recycled. “Unless recycled—which is required by law in some jurisdictions—CFLs are typically either disposed in landfills or fed to municipal waste incinerators,” says Kohorst. While landfills may be lined to prevent the release of mercury into groundwater, incinerators can release a bulb’s mercury into the atmosphere.
Encourage retailers who sell CFLs to institute takeback and recycling programs similar to those initiated for electronics. Currently, Ikea is the only retailer who both sells CFLs and accepts them for recycling, but NEMA sponsors a recycling program through www.lamprecycle.org. For other CFL recyclers in your area, visit www.earth911.org.
To reduce potential mercury exposure even further, seek out lower-mercury lighting such as Philips ALTO Technology fluorescent bulbs, which contain between 2 and 3 mg of mercury; Philips 16W A-Shape Alto bulb ($10.50; www.blackenergy.com).