Broken Bulbs: Avoiding Mercury Exposure

            I am a strong advocate of using compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs given their high energy efficiency, and therefore reduced impact on the environment.  If you don’t know them by their name, CFL bulbs are simply the twisted light bulbs you see everywhere these days.  As great as they are, however, CFLs do contain mercury vapor and are therefore important to dispose of properly if broken.  In the event that you break one of these bulbs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends the following: First, open a window and leave the room for at least 15 minutes.  This will allow for proper ventilation.  Also, make sure to shut off your central heating/air conditioning systems if you have one. Upon reentering the room you’re then instructed to use stiff cardboard or paper to scoop up the large glass fragments.  Make sure to not use a broom or vacuum to clean the debris as this will contaminate them.  Sticky tape is then recommended to remove small glass fragments or visible powder.  Finally, a wet cloth or paper towel should be used to wipe the area clean.  
            Note, all of the contents (broken glass, cardboard, wet cloth, etc.) are to be sealed in a glass jar or plastic bag following each step of the cleanup process.  If you must use a vacuum at any point, as might be the case for cleaning carpet, be sure to dispose of the vacuum bag in the same manner used for the other contents.  The sealed bags/jars containing the contents are then to be placed in an outside garbage can for the next local trash pickup.  Note that some states do not permit such trash disposal, instead requiring that the toxic waste be taken to a separate waste or recycling center. Simply check with your local or state government about disposal requirements for info on this.  Following the cleanup of the broken light bulb, be sure to wash your hands.  The detailed procedures that have been written to aid in broken CFL cleanup underscore the importance of avoiding mercury exposure and, in turn, the importance of this blog! 

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                                                                                                -Shahir Masri


  1. Hello professor, great information and it is great to know CFL bulbs are energy efficient.

    1. The interesting things I learned are CFL bulbs have mercury vapor and the procedures to follow if CFL bulbs are broken.
    2. Do you know what happens to CFL bulbs after they are taken to separate waste or recycling center? Are they recycled forever?


    Chioma Nnolim (March 2016 COH 608 Public Health and the Environment, SORRY I DIDN’T PUT THE CLASS TITLE IN THE OTHER TWO POSTS)

    1. Hi Chioma,

      I did a search regarding your question, and what I found on the epa.gov website is that most of the components of a CFL bulb are recyclable and recycling them prevents the release of mercury into the environment. Some states even require people to safely recycle their bulbs by finding waste collection sites or scheduling a collection of hazardous waste directly to their home. You can find more info. here: https://www.epa.gov/cfl/recycling-and-disposal-after-cfl-burns-out

      -Leticia Chavolla Salazar
      COH 608, National University

  2. Wait, what???
    The interesting thing I learned about CFL bulbs is that they are extremely dangerous. Forget the fact that they are energy efficient, there is definitely a public health issue involved.

    Why would anyone want to make a product that has harmful affects "if broken"? Really? This infuriates me. I don't think that information is listed on the package. I will have to research this. Why is it we put labels on tobacco products, but not light bulbs? All over the area we have the Prop. 65 warning, we have labels everywhere to protect those from liability because that is how we live in society now, so should I break a CFL bulb, can I hold the company liable for my "health issues"?

    Kelli Smith
    COH608 Public Health and the Environment: March 2016

    1. Hello Kelli,

      I really enjoyed reading your comment to the post. Both the FDA and EPA assure us that CFLs are not dangerous. But the energy saving bulbs are often a target for controversy due to their mercury content. Although CFLs require a small amount of mercury to produce light, the bulbs do not emit mercury as they operate, so you are only at risk for exposure if a bulb breaks.
      In regards to your question, CFL light bulbs are properly labeled. There are countless products that are available on the market that are labeled and are still dangerous. One product you mentioned was tobacco products. Tobacco is inherently harmful and carcinogenic, but it is a $35 billion industry. We know tobacco kills, but we leave it up to the consumer to make smart choices. So, if a consumer is aware that there is mercury in their lightbulb shouldn't they be allowed to use it if they choose to?
      Also, most colleges and industrial laboratories use mercury thermometers when measuring temperature. Countless amounts of medical devices, biotech equipment, and industrial measuring instruments use mercury. While mercury is inherently toxic, it can be used as an excellent resource. Along the same lines we know that some species of fish and shellfish have natural tendency to concentrate mercury in their bodies. And, the majority of people around the world regularly consume seafood as a source of protein. Exposure to small amounts of mercury isn't life threatening, but like anything in the world, I think it is always best to be cautious.
      So, while clean up measure of CFL lightbulbs that contain mercury might seem like a bit of a hassle, it’s not very much different than what you should be prepared to do if an incandescent light bulb were to break. CFL light bulbs are not “extremely dangerous,” but they do pose a concern that people should be aware of.

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  4. Hello Professor Masri,

    I did not know that the twisty lights/CFL were dangerous and also I had no clue as to how to dispose of the broken glass. What I found interesting is the fact that most people don't know this information either. And also today,my mom was complaining that light/CFL was glowing when she cut the lights off. I thought she was seeing things but now she was totally correct and I will go and tell her what to do if she happens to break one.
    My question is just how dangerous is the exposure to these lights, and what should someone do if they have broken a CFL light recently and not had gown through these steps?

    C.Jones COH 608

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