CFLs and Mercury

Mercury is an essential part of CFLs. Without this element, CFL bulbs wouldn’t function as an efficient light source. The amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing of a CFL is on average 4 milligrams – roughly equivalent to an amount that would cover the tip of a ball-point pen. By comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury.

While CFLs do contain a small amount of mercury, these energy-efficient bulbs are still a much more environmentally friendly option than traditional bulbs. In the U.S., about half of all man-made mercury emissions come from electricity production at coal-burning power plants making electricity the largest contributor to mercury emissions. Because CFLs require less energy to produce the same amount of light and last longer than traditional incandescents, they actually reduce mercury emissions and landfill waste while still saving you money.

CFLs are safe to use despite the mercury they contain. No mercury is released when the bulbs are intact or in use, but mercury vapor can be released if a bulb is broken. If a CFL breaks in your home, open nearby windows and proceed to carefully and thoroughly sweep up the fragments using stiff paper or cardboard. Do not use your hands. Use a sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick any remaining small glass fragments and powder. Do not use a vacuum. When you have gotten all of the small fragments of glass, place the used tape and all other clean up materials in a sealable container. It’s also a good idea to air out the room where the bulb was broken as much as possible.

Finally, you’ll need to dispose of the broken lightbulb and all cleanup materials. Check with your local government about disposal requirements in your area to learn if your area requires fluorescent bulbs (broken and unbroken) to be taken to a local recycling center. If you find that your area has no requirements, you can dispose of the materials in your household trash.

The Home Depot in Sioux Falls at 2523 S. Louise Ave. accepts CFLs for free recycling.

Some information for this feature was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, ENERGY STAR, Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.