I Broke a CFL. Now What?

CFL, CFLs, energy efficient, light bulb, light bulbs, light, lighting, compact, fluorescent,

CFLs save loads of energy when compared to traditional incandescent light bulbs, but they use small amounts of mercury to produce light. Photo Courtesy of Emilian Robert Vicol

Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) use 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and last about six times longer, but it's no secret that CFLs contain a small amount of mercury (about 4 milligrams per bulb on average).

Like any glass product, CFLs tend to break occasionally, causing many homeowners to worry about potential mercury exposure and adverse health effects. So, just how dangerous is a broken CFL? Should you dig out the gas mask and Hazmat suit, or have well-intentioned greenies overblown potential peril?

Earth911 sat down with John Rogers, a senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists who specializes in clean energy, to get to the bottom of these pressing questions about CFL safety, cleanup and disposal. You may be surprised by what we found!

Oops...I broke a CFL!

With headlines circulating about mercury in CFLs, the initial freak-out moment after breaking a bulb is understandable. But clean energy expert John Rogers is here to ease your mind.

"Don't panic," he assured. "This is a manageable problem. Most of the time they don't break. If they do break, there are procedures we follow."

Any level of mercury exposure carries potential health concerns, but due to the small amount of mercury and short duration of exposure, a broken CFL is not likely to present any significant risk to you or your family, Rogers told Earth911.

"You're talking under 5 milligrams of mercury," he said. "That figure won’t mean much to people, so to put it in perspective: if you think about the mercury thermometers that I grew up with, it's less than 1 percent of the amount of mercury that was in one of those thermometers."

Although the average 4 milligrams of mercury per bulb is already a fairly small amount, some CFL manufacturers are reducing mercury content even further. The average mercury content in CFLs dropped at least 20 percent in recent years, and some manufacturers have reduced mercury to as little as 1.4 to 2.5 milligrams per light bulb.

If you happen to break a CFL in your home, scroll through to the next page for tips, safety guidelines and cleanup instructions from the EPA that will help ensure the safe removal and disposal of your broken bulb.

Discovering our overall mercury footprint

Despite the small amount of mercury that may be released into the atmosphere if a CFL breaks or is disposed of improperly, the use of CFLs actually helps reduce total mercury emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA, the Union of Concerned Scientists and other sources.

"Part of the discussion is pulling the lens back a little bit and helping people understand why if you care about mercury, which you should, you should use more CFLs, not fewer," Rogers explained, pointing to the role of coal-fired power plants as the leading source of atmospheric mercury contamination.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the electricity required to power a 13-watt CFL over its 8,000-hour lifetime releases about 1 milligram of mercury emissions into the atmosphere, assuming coal supplies 40 percent of that electricity (close to the national average). Most of the mercury in a CFL is bound to the bulb and is therefore harmless. Even if a CFL breaks, total emissions are only about 1.4 milligrams.

Under the same assumptions, the electricity required to power a 60-watt incandescent bulb for its lifetime would release about 4.4 milligrams of mercury into the atmosphere - dwarfing the impact of CFLs with respect to the nation's overall mercury footprint.

"It's important to understand that the mercury emissions from coal aren't just about the environment, they're about us," Rogers said. "Where does that mercury end up? It ends up in our lakes and streams and in the fish we eat."

Mercury contamination in American waterways is no myth. The EPA National Listing of Fish Advisories reports 4,836 active fish advisories due to chemical contamination of waterways, with 3,834 of these advisories instated due to mercury pollution. In a 2010 EPA survey, a whopping 55 of 56 respondents, including U.S, states, territories and Native American tribes, identified mercury as a contaminant of primary human health concern in their jurisdictions.

So, how can we shrink our overall mercury footprint? The answer is simple, Rogers said: use less energy. For tips on reducing energy consumption in your home, check out these ideas for cutting use in the kitchen and laundry room, or these seven surprising ways to save all over the house. For more information on electricity and atmospheric mercury pollution, head to this fact-sheet from the EPA.


NEXT: Cleaning Up a Broken CFL

Mary Mazzoni

Based in the Phoenix metro area, Mary is a lifelong vegetarian and enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, biking and relaxing in the park. When she’s not outside, she’s probably watching baseball. She is a former assistant editor for Earth911.
  • Stephen

    The main problem is once you multiply the 4 milligrams in each bulb by a few billion, which most likely will end-up in garbage/landfills, which eventually could end up in ground water, which — etc… Then, the mercury is believed by many to be a big problem… however, for me — I have other problems, which consume my thought process.

    • David Keech

      If you’re going to multiply the CFLs by a few billion then you should also multiply the incandescents by a few billion, which uses 3x to 4x more electricity which releases roughly 3x to 4x more mercury into the atmosphere from the coal-burning power stations. This mercury ends up in rivers and streams and eventually fish which we eat.

      Even if a CFL is not recycled, the total amount of mercury released into the atmosphere is less than if you had used an incandescent light. This ratio remains the same, even if you multiply it by a few billion.

      Of course, LEDs are better. Choose those if you can.

  • Lois

    I had my washer open and as I was moving around some things on the shelf above one of our CFL bulbs fell and shattered in the washer. I cleaned up as much of the glass as I could but the smaller pieces fell through the draining holes. Will the glass just drain down the draining hose or is there a specific way to clean up the glass? Will it be safe for me to wash clothes in my washer now? Any advice would be appreciated!

  • David Hammond

    Fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) can release sufficient mercury vapor to
    cause poisoning. The Maine Department of Environment Protection
    conducted experimental trials to measure how much mercury was released
    when fluorescent bulb or CFLs were broken inside moderate sized rooms. They found that the mercury concentration could reach as high as 50,000 ng/m3 and possibly over 100,000 ng/m3 from the breakage of a single CFL. The Maine guideline for ambient air mercury is 300 ng/m3.
    There is at least one case report in medical journals in which a
    23-month-old baby developed acrodynia after being exposed to mercury
    from broken fluorescent light bulbs.

    From Mercury Poisoning: The Undiagnosed Epidemic

  • David Keech

    It’s probably too late now but what you should do if it happens again is put it in a glass jar (not in a plastic bag for broken ones) and recycle it.

  • Robyn Greenberg

    Many local hardware stores and sometimes pharmacies will accept them for recycling. They often accept batteries as well.

  • jack

    That doesnt help when shards of miniscule broken glass from a broken CFL end up in your food, and only after swallowing, do you realize it was from the CFL.

  • lydiarosephilpot

    Okay so if these are so bad for us, why are we being forced to buy them.

  • Jessica

    I recently broke an CFL around the food i had just cooked, I would like to know if its dangerous considering the amount of mercury the light bulb had and it wasnt directly over it ?