Mercury and Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Reader Contribution by Staff

Last spring, I wrote an article about how to save energy by choosing energy efficient lighting, and during that time I learned everything I could about compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). So many people are interested in CFLs now that friends continue to ask me questions about them. What most people want to know is whether the mercury in the light bulbs is dangerous. How worried should you be if you accidentally break one?

Although I keep reading news articles about CFLs, so far I haven’t seen any new research that changes what I’ve consistently heard. In a nutshell, the experts all seem to agree that using CFLs is definitely a good idea because it saves so much energy, and that even though mercury is a neurotoxin, there’s not enough of it in a broken bulb or two to be concerned about — at least not compared to all the other chemicals we’re exposed to in this polluted world. (By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about these types of environmental health issues, two resources I especially like are Environmental Health News and the Environmental Working Group.)

For a quick, but thorough, summary of the issues related to mercury check out this fact sheet from the Energy Star Program. It puts the amount of mercury in a CFL in perspective — it’s a small fraction of the amount of mercury used in those old thermometers — explains the benefits of CFLs, and also gives instructions on how to properly clean up a CFL should you break one.

I’ve still got my eyes peeled for information that mercury exposure from a broken CFL is dangerous enough to worry about having these light bulbs in your home, but I have yet to see anything convincing. I do frequently get an e-mail forward about a person who broke a CFL at home and was told it required a $2,000 cleanup. I’ve also seen follow up information explaining that the person in question got terrible advice because that kind of cleanup isn’t necessary. There’s more on that here, in an article from National Geographic that also has a good summary of issues related to mercury, and which concludes that breaking a CFL is not a serious concern.

Has anyone seen other convincing information that broken CFLs are a serious risk? If so, you can share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy.