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CFLs and Mercury

Efficient and Safe: What you should know about CFLs and mercury

CFLOne of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to reduce your energy costs is to replace your old incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). They use two-thirds less energy and last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs. Plus, they can save you up to $30 in energy costs over the life of the bulb.

You should also know that CFLs do contain a small amount of mercury - it's what makes the bulb so energy efficient. But it's important to know that CFLs are safe to use. No mercury is released when the bulbs are in use and they pose no danger when used properly.

What is mercury?

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal which has several forms. The metallic mercury is a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid. If heated or allowed to evaporate, it is a colorless, odorless gas. When liquid mercury is spilled, it forms droplets that emit vapors into the air. However, when mercury emissions deposit into lakes and oceans, they can transform into a highly toxic form that builds up in fish.

What household items contain mercury?

Mercury may be found in the following household items:

  • Thermometers, thermostats, barometers and electrical switches
  • “Silver” dental fillings
  • Some light bulbs: CFLs, fluorescent tubes, high-intensity, mercury vapor, high-pressure sodium and metal halide
  • Clock pendulums
  • Athletic shoes, toys and cards that light up or make noise

Disposing of burned-out CFLs

Since CFLs do contain mercury, it is important that you do not throw them in your garbage can, if at all possible. Instead, follow these steps:

  • Visit www.earth911.org or call 1-877-EARTH911 to find your local disposal options. You can also contact your local waste management agency for recycling options.
  • If there are no other options, place the CFL in a sealed plastic bag before putting it in your trash.
  • Never send a CFL or other mercury-containing product to an incinerator (some waste agencies incinerate their trash).

Wisconsin residents can visit Focus on Energy for additional CFL recycling information and to locate Wisconsin retailers participating in the CFL recycling initiative.

How much mercury is in a CFL?How much mercury is in a CFL?

CFLs contain approximately five milligrams (mg) of mercury sealed in the glass tubing.

This is equivalent to the tip of a ball-point pen. It would take between 100 to 600 CFLs to equal the amount of mercury in an old thermometer and manual thermostat respectively.

Disposing of broken CFLs

According to guidelines established by the Environment Protection Agency, you can safely clean up the spill yourself if the mercury spill is less than one to two tablespoons and is limited to a small area. If the mercury spill is larger, isolate the contaminated area and call your local environmental agency. The small amount of mercury in a fluorescent light bulb is not likely to cause a health problem, but it still should be cleaned up immediately. Before beginning clean-up:

  • Keep all people and pets away from the area of the spill.
  • If possible, close all doors between the spill and the rest of the house.
  • Turn off all ventilation systems (heating, a/c, fans) unless directly vented to the outdoors.
  • Open windows in the area of the spill.
  • Change into old clothes and shoes that can be thrown away if they come into contact with the mercury.
  • Put on gloves, preferably rubber.

On a smooth surface...

  • Carefully use a paper towel to wipe up all glass fragments and fine particles, and then seal in a plastic bag. Do not use a vacuum (which will make the mercury airborne) or a broom (which will break up the mercury droplets and increase exposure).
  • Gather the mercury droplets using two pieces of thick paper or plastic (such as index cards). Use a flashlight held at a low angle to look for additional beads around the room.
  • Either scoop up the beads with the paper or use an eye dropper to collect the beads. Put the mercury and all contaminated materials in a plastic bag and seal.
  • Use duct tape to pick up smaller, hard-to-see droplets. Make sure you also dispose of the tape in a sealed plastic bag.
  • Wipe the area with a damp paper towel and place in the sealed plastic bag.
  • If available, recycle all mercury or throw the sealed plastic bag into your garbage.

On a rug or carpeting...

  • Carefully pick up any broken glass and seal in a plastic bag.
  • Use a sharp knife to cut away the entire contaminated area (including carpet/rug backing).
  • Carefully fold the contaminated carpeting/rug so the mercury is trapped inside.
  • Place in a large trash bag along with the knife and seal with tape.
  • If available, recycle all mercury or throw the sealed plastic bag into your garbage.

When you are done…

  • Throw away everything you think may have come into contact with the mercury.
  • Wash your hands or take a shower if you think other parts of your body may have contacted mercury.
  • Keep the area well ventilated for at least 24 hours after the clean-up and continue to keep pets and children away from the clean-up area during that time.
  • Do not pour mercury down the drain. Also, do not wash mercury-contaminated clothing in the washing machine or wear clothes that were contaminated.

 

Questions?

For more information on the proper disposal of CFLs or the safe clean-up of mercury spills, please visit:

Note: These guidelines are based on good industrial hygiene practices. No assessment of the effectiveness of the clean-up methods described has been made.