ByLeigh Garofalow

Dec 9, 2014
CFL Glow
CFL bright idea
Image courtesy of Dennis Wilkinson

CFLs are a popular choice for lighting because of their energy efficiency and longevity – that is without question. However, there has been some confusion about what to do when one of these CFL’s break. Here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions:

Why is breaking a CFL worrisome?

CFLs and other fluorescent light bulbs contain a small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. When a fluorescent bulb breaks in your home, some of this mercury is released as mercury vapor. Mercury vapor cannot be seen or smelled. The vapors can have an effect on your nervous system, lungs and kidneys.

What if I touch it?

Touching mercury is less dangerous to your body than inhaling the vapors though touching mercury should be avoided. If you need to clean up mercury at any point wear gloves to protect your skin.

What do I do if I break a CFL Lightbulb?

First thing you should do is keep people and pets away from the broken light bulb. Next shut off your HVAC system (if on) so the mercury vapors do not get into the system. This step is recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as a precaution. It may seem a little extreme but if the vapors get into the system they will spread around your entire home and as the vapors get warm they are more toxic to inhale.

Grab a glass jar, some wet paper towels, piece of strong paper or cardboard, and packing tape. Use the cardboard to scoop up with broken glass and place the pieces into the glass jar. Use the wet paper towel to push the smaller pieces onto the cardboard. Once you think you have picked up all the pieces take a piece of tape and pick up all the tiny pieces. Place the tape in the glass jar. Of course be sure to screw the lid on tight.

Store the glass jar outside away from windows or high traffic areas. Go online and read your towns rules on the disposal of CFL’s. Some require that you bring them to the recycling center or town dump. You can also check our recycling center page to see where you can bring you broken or used bulbs in your area.

If you are able to keep a window open for a few hours after you clean up,  that is ideal. If you break the light bulb on carpet or other surfaces, check out the EPA’s recommendations for cleaning up.

What are the symptoms of mercury vapor exposure?

  • Cough, sore throat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Increase in blood pressure or heart rate
  • A metallic taste in the mouth
  • Eye irritation
  • Headache
  • Vision problems

If you are concerned about your health after cleaning up a broken CFL, consult your local poison control center by calling 1-800-222-1222. You can call your center any time you have questions or in an emergency.

In all likelihood breaking a single bulb will not result in adverse health effects. But, taking the necessary precautions to ensure the health and safety of everyone in your house including your pets is a safer bet than doing nothing at all.

Feature image courtesy of Marcus Williams

By Leigh Garofalow

Leigh Garofalow is a self described 'born environmentalist' who won a recycling poster contest in 3rd grade and has been green ever since. She is a mother of two children under the age of 6 who think taking a cloth napkin and their own utensils to school is normal. She loves writing about anything related to health, wellness, and the environment. One day she hopes to make every up-cycled item and recipe she pinned on Pinterest!