Swapping out incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents benefits the environment and your finances by reducing energy consumption. CFL bulbs require 75 percent less energy to operate and last up to 10 times longer than incandescents (see References 4). However, the bulbs do contain a small amount of the toxic heavy metal mercury, meaning they must be disposed of safely (see References 5).
Proper Disposal Technique
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy advise people to dispose of CFL bulbs safely and separately to prevent mercury contamination. In addition, some states and municipalities have passed laws requiring that the bulbs be recycled. To safely recycle your CFLs, contact your waste hauler or municipality to see if either offers a collection service or has a drop-off location for the used bulbs. Many hardware stores collect the bulbs, so check with local retailers if you do not have a drop-off nearby. You can gather the bulbs in a shoe box or another box safely stored away until you accumulate several in need of recycling, thus preventing numerous trips to the drop-off center. (See References 1)
Mercury Content in a CFL
A CFL contains about 4 milligrams of mercury -- compared to about 500 milligrams in old thermometers -- but the mercury content allows the lightbulb to work efficiently. Mercury poses no risks in an intact bulb because it is sealed in the glass tubes. CFL manufacturers continue to work to reduce the amount of mercury in the bulbs to lessen the health risks associated with mercury contamination. (See References 2)
Mercury Health Risks
When CFLs end up in landfills, the bulbs can break and allow mercury to leach into the soil and possibly the groundwater supply, which over time can pose environmental and health risks. Broken CFLs must be cleaned up carefully and disposed of properly to prevent a potential array of symptoms affecting numerous body systems. Difficulty moving, trembling in the hands and memory loss all are signs of mercury poisoning. The heavy metal can also damage the kidneys and liver. (See References 5)
Cleaning Up Broken CFLs
If you drop a CFL and the glass breaks, you must follow certain procedures to stop the bulb from releasing toxic mercury vapor. First, tell all people in the area to move to another room and remove any pets from the area. Turn off your furnace or air conditioning to stop air circulation, and open a nearby window for five to 10 minutes to air the room out and release any mercury vapors. Sweep up the broken glass carefully, and use a disposable paper towel or cloth to wipe down the area. Then seal all the collected waste into a plastic bag or another airtight container (see References 3). Store the broken bulb with intact bulbs, but keep it outdoors in a trash container until you are ready to dispose of it properly. Don't use a vacuum to clean up the broken bulbs, and when possible leave a window open and the furnace or air conditioner off for several hours (see References 5).
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Recycling and Disposal After a CFL Burns Out
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Mercury -- Information for Consumers; May 2011
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Cleaning Up a Broken CFL; June 2011
- U.S. Department of Energy; Compact Fluorescent Lamps; February 2011
- Energy Star: Mercury in Compact Fluorescent Bulbs
Anna Aronson began working as a journalist in 2000 and spent six years at suburban Chicago newspapers before pursuing freelance work. She enjoys writing about health care topics, in particular obstetrics, pediatrics and nutrition. She received a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and is now studying for a Master of Science in medicine degree to become a physician's assistant.
- Jeffrey Hamilton/Digital Vision/Getty Images