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.