Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs — A Bright Idea?

by Ellen

The old fluorescent light bulb has come a long way since the days of the buzzing, flickering tubes in offices and (gasp!) dressing rooms.  The cute, new compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb can be used in almost any household lamp, though special ones are needed for dimmers or recessed lighting.  We used to own dimmable CFLs, special track lighting CFLs, type “A” CFLs that fit in standard lamps and even an expensive reading lamp made to accommodate only one kind of compact fluorescent light bulb.

CFLs are considerably more energy efficient than the traditional incandescent light bulbs that used to illuminate our homes.  Energy Star, a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and The U.S. Department of Energy tells us that CFLs use 75% less energy than incandescent light bulbs.  In fact, “If every home in America replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of 800,000 cars.”¹

In this age of rising greenhouse gas emissions and higher energy costs the new CFL seems like a wonderful idea.  There’s one big hitch: they contain mercury.  Mercury, a neurotoxin, is best avoided.  It’s especially toxic to the developing brains of fetuses and infants.  Luckily, CFLs only contain “enough mercury to fit on the head of a pin.”  (I see this measurement everywhere.  What on earth does it mean??)  Must be a small, harmless amount, right?  Wrong.

Read more from Energy Star:

And even though CFLs contain a small amount of mercury that could ultimately end up in the environment, that amount is significantly less than the amount of mercury avoided as a result of the energy savings.²

In other words, if coal-fired plants are used to generate the electricity needed to power light bulbs, more mercury will be emitted when energy-inefficient incandescent light bulbs are used.  Simple.  However, Energy Star is only addressing the power plant mercury emissions compared to the environmental mercury contamination from the incorrect disposal of CFLs.  What about the personal health effects of an exposure to mercury from a broken CFL?

Our Story, Winter 2009

One very cold evening we returned home from a trip.  Since it was zero degrees outside, we turned up our forced hot air heat as soon as we walked in the door.  I immediately started cooking dinner for my husband and our overtired 6-year-old.  No sooner had I added noodles to boiling water than I heard my husband exclaim that a light bulb had broken.  He seemed really upset about it and I soon discovered why: it was a compact fluorescent bulb from our fancy new lamp.  It had fallen straight out of its socket when he tried to adjust the arm on the lamp.  Harried and scatterbrained, I handed him some latex gloves (after all, CFLs contain mercury) and a little dustpan and broom with the instructions to bag the cleaning implements with the broken glass, since they would be contaminated.

After he had been cleaning for a few minutes, it suddenly struck me that I should look up the proper disposal suggestions for a broken light bulb.  The current recommendations look like this:  What to Do if a Fluorescent or Other Mercury-Containing Light Bulb Breaks

It soon became apparent that we had done almost everything wrong.  (Luckily, we hadn’t used a vacuum cleaner!)  I rushed to the heater to turn off the blowers, yelled to my son to get his coat on and get in the car, opened the windows to let in the zero-degree air and took off driving into the frigid night for half an hour to let the house air out.  Dread filled me as I realized that my husband had tracked the powder from inside the bulb all over the house because he had been wearing his slippers as he cleaned up.   My son had been standing in the living room when the brand-new (i.e. most toxic) bulb broke and he was exposed to the mercury vapor that was quickly blown around the house.  The bulb had broken smack in between 2 heater registers.

We live in an old house with wood floors that have cracks between the boards.  These cracks were to become the bane of my existence as I stood next to an open window wearing a dust mask, latex gloves and old socks I could throw out, freezing my feet off trying to pry teeny pieces of broken glass out of the floor using a bent paperclip and some duct tape.  (The glass shards have powder on them that should not be inhaled.)  What horror to discover several shards of glass deep in the heater registers!

I continued to discover more glass shards, which if disturbed by being walked on or played around, would emit more mercury.  Knowing that the floor couldn’t be vacuumed until all traces of dust were gone, I scrubbed with wet paper towels that could be contained in plastic bags — outside.  Yeah, mercury fumes leak through plastic bags and we had already put the broken bulb in a plastic bag before I read the guidelines to seal it in a glass jar with a metal lid.  For weeks afterward, I only vacuumed when our son was at school, making sure that the windows were open despite the cold temps.  (Maybe I was being overly cautious; read the cleanup guidelines and see what you think! )

We ended up throwing out the rug that had the dust tracked all over it — I wasn’t about to play Scrabble lying on that rug anymore — and some clothes we used during cleanup.

The next day I made some phone calls. The pediatrician’s office didn’t know what to do in the event of an acute exposure to mercury and suggested I call Poison Control.  They told me there was only “a very small amount of mercury” and not to worry about it.  I made other calls to various state organizations but was unable to figure out how to dispose of our mess.  Our local landfill was not yet equipped to handle mercury disposal from broken bulbs and told us to throw all the trash in the bin.  (The situation has since improved at the dump.)

How big is the risk, really?

CFLs contain an average of four milligrams of elemental mercury, which poses a health hazard when it is inhaled.  According the the US Environmental Protection Agency,

Elemental (metallic) mercury primarily causes health effects when it is breathed as a vapor where it can be absorbed through the lungs. These exposures can occur when elemental mercury is spilled or products that contain elemental mercury break and expose mercury to the air, particularly in warm or poorly-ventilated indoor spaces…Symptoms include these: tremors; emotional changes (e.g., mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness); insomnia; neuromuscular changes (such as weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching); headaches; disturbances in sensations; changes in nerve responses; performance deficits on tests of cognitive function. At higher exposures there may be kidney effects, respiratory failure and death. People concerned about their exposure to elemental mercury should consult their physician.³

The State of Maine takes mercury exposure from CFLs seriously. In fact, in 2007 the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) conducted 45 experiments cleaning up broken compact fluorescent light bulbs under different situations, measuring the resulting mercury levels at five feet (adult height) and one foot (infant/toddler height).  The entire Maine CFL study can be found here and the executive summary (short version) here.

The Maine DEP found that levels of mercury were indeed elevated after a CFL broke, sometimes quite high, especially right after the breakage and later when the affected area was agitated.  What’s more, in some cases the mercury levels continued to spike upon agitation for days to weeks after the break.  The researchers also found that the method of cleanup, venting, and disposal of materials affected the mercury levels in the room.  Maine DEP sets the same elemental mercury safety standard (ambient air guideline) as the EPA’s reference concentration (RfC) — at 300 ng/m³.  This concentration was established from many occupational studies observing nervous system abnormalities and cognitive deficits.  (It is important to note that the EPA considers any one exposure over their accepted toxicity value to be of concern (see page 11), as it can possibly disrupt development in some way.)

The Maine CFL study showed that the 300 ng/m³ “safe” limit of mercury was frequently and significantly exceeded after CFLs were broken:

Mercury concentration in the study room air often exceeds the Maine Ambient Air Guideline (MAAG) of 300 nanograms per cubic meter (ng/m3) for some period of time, with short excursions over 25,000 ng/m3, sometimes over 50,000 ng/m3, and possibly over 100,000 ng/m3 from the breakage of a single compact fluorescent lamp. A short period of venting can, in most cases, significantly reduce the mercury air concentrations after breakage. Concentrations can sometimes rebound when rooms are no longer vented, particularly with certain types of lamps and during/after vacuuming. Mercury readings at the one foot height tend to be greater than at the five foot height in non vacuumed situations.4

The study results caused Maine to modify its broken CFL cleanup guidelines to include:

• Leaving the area/room and waiting 15 minutes after breakage to begin cleaning up (mercury levels in the air will have fallen from their highest levels by then);

• Using a glass container with a metal screw top lid with seal such as a canning jar to contain the lamp pieces, powder, and cleanup materials;

• Immediately removing the containerized lamp debris from the living quarters especially if the homeowner did not have a glass container with a good seal;

• Continue venting room for several hours;

• Suggesting that homeowners consider removal of carpeting sections where breakage has occurred as a precaution in some situations, particularly in homes with infants, small children or pregnant women;

• If carpet is not removed, the homeowner should consider ventilating the room during vacuuming for the next several vacuuming events;

• Suggesting that homeowners consider not utilizing fluorescent lamps in situations where they could easily be broken, in bedrooms used by infants, small children or pregnant women, or over carpets in rooms frequented by infants, small children or pregnant women; and

• Avoiding the storage of too many used/spent lamps before recycling that could increase the chances of breakage.5

The Maine DEP also suggests using a drop cloth underneath lamps when changing bulbs.

So, how bad is it to be exposed to a broken CFL or two?  I don’t know.  It makes me uncomfortable that the “safe” mercury limits are often exceeded when a bulb breaks and they can continue to be passed when a child plays in the area or we vacuum the floor.  Mercury accumulates in our bodies.  In our house we now only use CFLs in low-risk places!

What can a conservation-minded person do?

  • Put nanoparticles to good use. Researchers at Brown University have developed a lining for the containers of broken CFLs that absorbs almost all the mercury from a broken bulb.  Using selenium nanoparticles, the engineers were able to create a cloth that one day might make it into the packaging of CFLs sold in stores.  Their discovery was published in Environmental Science and Technology.
  • Buy a smarter CFL! ArmorLight by ClearLite is a CFL wrapped in a traditional-looking bulb case with a special skin that can catch any broken shards and contain mercury if the inner glass breaks.
  • Try LEDs. Light-emitting diode technology for light bulbs is improving.  Look for newer LED bulbs that work well in lamps in the near future.  LEDs last longer than CFLs, contain no mercury and don’t emit UV radiation (like CFLs).  Here’s a great comparison of LEDs versus CFLs.
  • Use CFLs in places where an errant ball or pouncing cat isn’t likely to hit them!
  • Recycle broken or burned-out CFLs. Mercury from CFLs that go into landfills gets converted to methyl mercury, often ending up the food chain.
  • Turn off all kinds of lights when not in use and consider using “greener” sources of electricity if available in your area.

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1,2) Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) and Mercury, Energy Star. (accessed 6/2/2010)

3) Mercury: Health Effects, United States Environmental Protection Agency: (accessed 6/2/10)

4, 5)  Maine Compact Fluorescent Lamp Study, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, February, 2008. (accessed 6/2/10)

What to Do if a Fluorescent or Other Mercury-Containing Light Bulb Breaks U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (accessed 6/2/10)

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Jen June 12, 2010 at 11:10 am

Thank you, BodyEarth, for informing me – as usual! I really had no idea about the significant dangers of broken CFL bulbs. And, I’m feeling a bit terrified as we broke one a month or so ago and let me just say the cleanup was not what I would call careful OR thorough. Yikes. :( But, now I know. I’ll just hope for the best, and take proper measures in the future. Thanks!

BodyEarth June 14, 2010 at 11:17 am

Jen, I think I may have worried excessively about our broken bulb, but we did have the “perfect storm” with my son’s standing right where it broke, the blowing heaters, tracking the dust through the house…ugg. Next time we’ll be more careful, too, with the few remaining CFL’s we have!

Mindy July 11, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I had a house guest this past weekend who broke a CFL in the middle of the night when he knocked over a lamp in the guest room on his way to the bathroom – we have sealed concrete floors and it REALLY broke. He believes that environmental awareness is a joke by liberals and he was completely unaware even of what a CFL is- he got out my broom and my favorite dustpan and small brush, swept everything up, put it in the small, open guest room trashcan, and went back to sleep. With our AC running full blast, as this is summer in Central Texas. I found out about the incident when they were about to leave a full 36 hours later! Now what do I do? I have not have any luck figuring that out…Hate to toss out my dust pan, although I’d let go of the broom. Any thoughts?

Mindy July 11, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Sorry – I have not *had* any luck figuring that out…All sites I have found tell you what to do immediately as long as you know you’ve got a CFL. Not how to address an improper clean-up, much as you had to do.

BodyEarth July 11, 2010 at 8:09 pm

I’m so sorry to hear about your broken CFL, Mindy! I can imagine how upset you were to find out about it 36 hours later. In a way, you were lucky the break took place on concrete, since you can wash your floor and throw away whatever cloths or paper towels you use to clean it. I’m afraid I can’t give you much advice, but I think *I* would simply follow the cleanup guidelines as much as you can after the fact (!), making sure you open the windows when you do. You could probably just wipe your dustpan with wet paper towels, too. I wouldn’t rinse it in the sink, since supposedly your plumbing can become contaminated. I would think the broom would be tough to clean. It will be good when there is a greater awareness of the dangers of a broken CFL for people of all political persuasions :-)

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