Compact Fluorescent Lights Not Such a Bright Idea

We are being encouraged by our government, utilities, and public interest organizations to use the new compact fluorescent light bulbs.  But is this a good idea?  Let’s take a look.

The Facts:  CFL’s save energy.  In fact they operate on 50% less energy when compared to a regular incandescent bulb.  However, they contain elemental mercury.  And that is where the problems start.

The Mercury Policy Project says levels of mercury exposure from broken bulbs are high enough to be a public health concern.

A broken CFL can produce mercury vapor levels well in excess of current state and federal guidelines.

If you have a broken CFL bulb in your home here is some of what the Maine State Department says to do:

  • Do not use a vacuum cleaner!  A vacuum cleaner will spread the mercury vapor and dust throughout your home and contaminate the vacuum.  (If you use a broom or dustpan they will be contaminated and must be thrown away).


  • Ventilate the area by opening windows.  Leave the area for at least 15 minutes before returning to clean up.
  • Wear rubber gloves
  • Remove larger pieces of bulb; place them in a secure closed container, preferably glass with a metal screw top lid with a very good seal.
  • Use two stiff pieces of paper such as index cards or playing cards to scoop up pieces.
  • Pat the area with sticky side of duct tape or masking tape.  Wipe the area with a wet paper towels.
  • All index cards, light bulb pieces, and tape must be put into a glass container.  They have all been contaminated with mercury.  Label the container “Universal Waste”.  (Here is where you need to check with your local garbage removal for what you should do beyond this point.)
  • Ventilate the room for several hours.
  • Wash your face and hands.
  • If the break happens on carpeting or fabric you may need to remove the rugs or fabric items.  (The Illinois Department of Public Health says carpeting should be removed and discarded).
  • If you have a bulb burn out but it is not broken — remove it, wrap it in bubble wrap, and place it in a hard container like a large jar with a good seal.  Label it according to your local requirements.  These bulbs are harmful to the landfill if they get there and are broken.  I can’t imagine where we are going to put all these bulbs that no longer work but can’t be broken for the sake of safety.

Where is the environmentalist on this issue?

If you are exposed to more mercury than your body can flush out, the mercury settles in your vital organs leading to all kinds of adverse health effects.  Mercury exposure can impair fertility, can cause brain damage in a fetus (pregnant women and young children need to be very careful about exposure), can cause birth defects, memory loss, liver damage and kidney damage.  Mercury poison is irreversible.  All of these adverse health effects are why we are cautioned about the mercury levels in some fish and streams.  But a broken CFL bulb contains mercury in a vapor form that is easily inhaled and slow to dissipate.

Use CFL’s with caution and never around the most vulnerable young children and pregnant women.

As the number of fluorescent lights used increases the amount of mercury that can be accidentally released will continue to rise and all of us will be exposed to rising mercury levels and the harm they can cause.

The lighting industry is working on decreasing the levels of mercury in CFL’s but current technology depends on mercury to work.


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