How to Clean Up Broken CFL Bulbs
Our expert explains that compact fluorescent bulbs do contain mercury, but not enough to be concerned about.
Randall, our customers are concerned about the mercury in fluorescent bulbs, primarily because of the serious consequences of breaking a bulb and the difficulties of cleaning it up. They’ve read stories about how someone had to quarantine his house when he broke a bulb on the baby’s nursery carpet, and then it cost $2,000 to clean it up. What can I do other than to tell them not to break their bulbs, which sounds glib? We know where to send them to recycle the bulbs, but we really need help with the mercury issue.
Yes, CFLs do contain mercury; it is an essential element of the bulb’s anatomy, without which it could not operate. The amount of mercury used in a CFL is 4 to 6 milligrams. Mercury emissions from a CFL’s electricity consumption are about 2.4 milligrams over the bulbs’s lifetime, while emissions from an incandescent light bulb are about 10 milligrams for the same period. So, a CFL emits 76 percent less mercury. The mercury in a CFL can be reclaimed and reused through the process of recycling. Collected bulbs are crushed in a machine that uses negative pressure ventilation and a mercury-absorbing filter. Therefore, if you use a CFL and recycle it, the mercury emission level is actually negated completely. Mercury stored in CFL bulbs is perfectly safe unless the surrounding glass breaks, allowing the mercury vapors to escape. As I have mentioned before, if you need to dispose of a CFL, visit If your clients live near an IKEA store, they can use the retailer’s CFL recycling bins. In their 2006 fiscal year, IKEA recycled 156,301 pounds of CFLs. If a CFL breaks in your child’s bedroom and the entire 5 milligrams of mercury vaporizes immediately (an unlikely occurrence), it will result in an airborne mercury concentration of 0.2 milligrams. The mercury in the room will likely approach zero after about an hour or so as air moves naturally through the room. If you should break a CFL, clean up with care using the following steps: 1. Do not allow children or pregnant women to enter the affected area. 2. Open windows and allow air to circulate to the affected area. 3. Sweep glass fragments and phosphor powder (do not vacuum) into a plastic bag. 4. Wipe the area with a damp paper towel to pick up stray shards of glass or fine particles, and place the used towel in the plastic bag, as well. 5. For proper disposal of a broken CFL bulb, contact your local authority for a community household-hazardous-waste collection. If I break a CFL, I clean it up then go out for cocktails. I recommend one cocktail per hour. Once I get home, not only is the mercury vapor gone, but I am totally mellow about the whole situation.
Randall Whitehead, IALD

Randall Whitehead, IALD, is a professional lighting designer and author. His books include "Residential Lighting, A Practical Guide." Whitehead has worked on projects worldwide, appeared on the Discovery Channel, HGTV and CNN, and he is regular guest on Martha Stewart Living Radio. Visit his website for more information on books, upcoming seminars and the latest lighting trends.

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