A couple of weeks ago, one of the goals I suggested for reducing home energy usage was to switch from using regular (incandescent) light bulbs to CFLs (compact fluorescent lights).  CFLs are more expensive to purchase up-front, but they will last much longer than regular light bulbs, use much less energy, and therefore save you money, too.

Some readers expressed questions, however, because CFLs contain mercury.  This is certainly a valid concern.  As consumers, we need to be aware of both the risks and benefits of CFLs so that we can handle them properly and without worry.

How much mercury is in a CFL?

There is an average of five milligrams of mercury in a CFL – this is about the size of the tip of a ball-point pen.  By way of comparison, old home thermometers that use mercury contain about 500 milligrams of mercury, and manual thermostats contain about 3000 milligrams.

Safety tip:

Always hold a CFL bulb by the base when you are installing it and unscrewing it; do not hold the bulb itself.  Handle them carefully, as you would handle any kind of light bulb, so that they are not dropped and broken.

What if I break a CFL?

According to the EPA, the amount of mercury in a CFL is so small that there is probably a greater risk of injury from glass shards than from mercury itself. However, it is still wise to take precautions.  Here are the steps to follow if you should break a CFL:

  1. Open an outside door or window to air out the room, and then leave the room for about fifteen minutes.
  2. Turn off the central AC/heat.
  3. After fifteen minutes, scoop up as many large shards as you can and put them into a sealable plastic bag, take-and-toss plastic containers, or an old jar with a lid.  Use paperboard or cardboard to scoop; don’t use bare hands.
  4. Use a damp paper towel to wipe up fine shards, and put that in the container as well.
  5. If there are shards in carpet, vacuum them up and then empty and wipe down the canister or change the bag afterward, also sealing the contents or the bag in a sealable container.

If you are pregnant or nursing, ask someone else to change the bulbs and clean up any spills for you.

Photo by Kassy Miller

How should I dispose of a CFL?

Whether it’s broken or intact, a CFL shouldn’t be thrown away with regular garbage; just like household paint, batteries, and thermostats, it needs to be recycled, or end up in a hazardous waste facility, not the trash dump.  Some US states require this. In addition to your local city facilities, many stores offer CFL recycling, including IKEA and Home Depot.

If you need help finding a place to dispose of or recycle your CFLs, go to Earth911.com or RecycleABulb.com.  You can enter in the name of what you want to recycle and your zip code, and it will tell you where to find the nearest facilities.

The Future of Regular Light Bulbs and CFLs

Australia and Cuba have already banned the old “regular” light bulbs, and Europe has begun a phase-out ban.  Canada has plans to ban them by 2012, and while the US currently has no plan to ban, all bulbs in the US will be required to use 30% less energy by 2012, and by 2020 they must be 70% more efficient, which means the old bulbs that don’t meet the cut will be out.  Therefore, it’s important to start learning how to properly use and dispose of CFLs, because they may soon be the only available option.

Manufacturers are currently working to reduce the amount of mercury in a CFL even further, down to two milligrams if possible.  In the meantime, if you follow these basic safety procedures and use common sense, you should have little reason to worry about using CFLs.

For more information, see the EPA’s frequently-asked-questions regarding CFLs.

Has your household switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs?  What concerns do you have?