Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: Do Energy-savings Outweigh Mercury Hazard?


PHILADELPHIA (January 29, 2009) – With the issue of climate change on everyone’s mind these days, people are looking for ways to cut down on energy use. Many people are turning to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which use 75 percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs.

But there is also a concern because CFLs contain a small amount of mercury. One Pennsylvania resident recently emailed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s mid-Atlantic region to ask what she should do.

“The problem with CFLs,” she wrote, “is that these bulbs contain mercury and they need to be disposed of properly but the box does not give any instructions. Should we be more concerned with energy saving or mercury hazards?

EPA’s electronics recycling specialist Dan Gallo, who responded to the question, says the benefits of lower energy consumption outweigh the disadvantages but “EPA promotes and encourages the safe disposal of old CFLs to prevent the release of mercury into the environment.”

“Although CFCs do contain mercury, it is present in trace amounts — five milligrams — an amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen,” said Gallo. “It would take 100 CFLs to equal the amount of mercury contained in older thermometers, which is about 500 milligrams.”

The good news is that old CFC bulbs can be taken to Home Depot, IKEA and Ace Hardware for recycling. And Wal-mart is piloting a CFL recycling program at its stores in the Richmond, Va. area.

Since CFLs use 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescent light bulbs, if every American switched one incandescent bulb to a CFL, it would save more than $600 million in annual energy costs and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions from 800,000 cars.

“Using CFLs is a quick and easy way for Americans to save energy and money everyday, while they also protect the environment,” Gallo said.

But if a bulb accidentally breaks, proper clean-up is necessary.

“The first thing you want to do is to get everyone out of room, including pets,” Gallo said. “Open a window to air out the room for at least 15 minutes. If you broke the bulb on a hard surface, take a piece of stiff paper or cardboard and scoop up as much of the debris and residue as you can.”

Gallo advises to use an old glove or sock to protect hands and then wipe up any remaining residue with a moist paper towel. “If you broke the bulb on a carpeted surface, you’ll want to use sticky tape to blot up any residue. Put everything in a plastic bag or a jar that can be sealed with a lid and dispose of it with the regular household trash.”

For more information on CFLs go to:

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