I wish I knew yesterday what I know now. Last night as I was unscrewing a compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) in the ceiling of my bathroom it suddenly came loose and fell to the ground shattering in a thousand little pieces … and there was an ominous white cloud of dust that rose up from the pile of breakage. I stayed in the bathroom for the next 15-20 minutes cleaning up the mess of shattered particles and white powder. I didn’t think much of it except that I was curious about that white dust… so I Googled. And I came across some very important information that I wish I had known and want everyone else to be aware of!
That white powder was MERCURY and there are very special instructions from the Environmental Protection Agency with respect to the safety of cleaning up after a CFL breaks due to the release of mercury particles and vapor into the air and surroundings! One of the first things you are supposed to do is immediately open the windows to provide ventilation to the area, turn off central air if you have it and vacate the room for at least 5-10 minutes. To be completely honest, when I read this, I panicked and felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach since I had stayed in the small bathroom right after the break and cleaned up the dust and shattered glass with just a broom, some wet paper towels and my bare hands. (More below on the exact instructions for cleanup.)
Many people might be unaware of the small print on the side of the package of CFL bulbs indicating that they contain mercury—typically around one to five milligrams depending on the size and brand. The mercury is essential to a fluorescent bulb’s ability to emit light — no other element has proved as efficient. But as effective as it is for production of light, mercury is also highly toxic. At high levels it can cause damage to the central nervous system and is especially harmful to the brains of both fetuses and children, but even at low levels, mercury is capable of causing a number of health problems including impairment of motor functioning and cognitive ability. That’s why officials have curtailed or banned its use in applications from thermometers to automotive and thermostat switches. And just to put it into perspective, although 4-5 milligrams in one fluorescent bulb sounds like a miniscule amount, that is enough mercury to contaminate 6,000 gallons of water!
But the problem of exposure really comes when a bulb breaks. Some of the mercury inside the bulb escapes as vapor that can be inhaled and as a fine powder that can settle into carpet and other areas.
You may be wondering – does a CFL bulb really release mercury in amounts that we should be concerned about when it breaks?
According to a study conducted by a group of researchers at Brown University and funded by the NIEHS Superfund Basic Research Program reported in the August 2008 issue of Environmental Science & Toxicology, the measured the release of mercury vapor from broken bulbs during the hour immediately after breakage is concerning. The researchers recorded concentrations near the bulb reaching up to 800 mcg/m3, which is eight times the average eight-hour occupational exposure limit allowed by OSHA (100 mcg/m3). Even more shocking, the recommended limit for children is just 0.2 mcg/m3. So that means a child exposed to a broken CFL bulb will receive eight thousand times the recommended amount of mercury vapor! They also found that a broken 13-watt CFL bulb will only have released 30% of its mercury a full four days after it is broken—the remainder is trapped in the bulb debris. So picking up shards with your bare hands or leaving them in poorly ventilated room is a particularly bad idea.
Every consumer using fluorescent lighting in their home should know what to do in case one of them breaks! So how do you clean up a broken CFL bulb safely?
The instructions below are EPA’s instructions that have been adapted with recommendations from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection study and the Environmental Working Group.
- GET PEOPLE AND PETS OUT OF THE AREA AND ISOLATE THE SITE.
- Get everyone out of the area. People and pets should immediately leave the room. (We don’t want our pets harmed either and they can pick up the mercury and track it into other areas).
- Open windows if any, leave the room, and close the door behind you.
- Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning (H&AC) system, if you have one.
- Children and pregnant or nursing mothers should not return until cleanup is complete.
- AIR OUT THE ROOM FOR 5 TO 15 MINUTES
- Give mercury vapor time to disperse and settle into tiny dust-like beads. Don’t wait longer: mercury spreads easily.
- PUT ON SAFETY GEAR AND ASSEMBLE CLEAN-UP MATERIALS.
- Wear rubber gloves, safety (or other) glasses, work clothes and a dust mask or face covering when cleaning up the broken bulb.
- Collect materials you will need to clean up the broken bulb:
- Stiff paper or cardboard
- Sticky tape (e.g., duct tape)
- Damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes (for hard surfaces)
- Glass jar with a metal lid (such as a canning jar) or second choice a sealable plastic jar, or third choice a sealable plastic bag(s)
- AFTER AIRING OUT THE AREA – CLEAN UP.
- Never use vacuum cleaners or brooms as this disperses the mercury over a wider area.
Cleanup Steps for Hard Surfaces, Carpeting or Rugs
- WEARING GLOVES, CAREFULLY scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place debris and paper/cardboard into the glass jar with a metal lid. If a glass jar is not available, use a sealable plastic bag. (NOTE: Since a plastic bag will not prevent the mercury vapor from escaping, remove the plastic bag(s) from the home immediately after cleanup.)
- Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder. Place the used tape in the glass jar or plastic bag.
- For hard surfaces, thoroughly wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.
*IF A BULB BREAKS ON A RUG OR CARPETING:
- Fabrics are harder to clean than hard surfaces; removing all mercury may be impossible. Hang a CFL-contaminated rug outside. Experts disagree on whether to vacuum carpeting. EPA recommends doing so and cleaning the vacuum afterward. Scientists with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection disagree: after testing various CLF cleanup scenarios, they concluded that vacuuming can spread mercury vapor and permanently contaminate the vacuum. Keep infants, children and women of childbearing age away from the carpeting for several weeks.
- BE SURE TO WIPE YOUR SHOES!
- Wipe your shoes with wet wipes or a moist paper towel, then add the wipes to the waste jar.
- SEAL UP THE WASTE.
- Put paper, cardboard, tape and wipes in the jar and close the lid. Put all debris and cleanup materials in a sealable container (sealable glass jar with a metal lid is best or sealable plastic bag) and immediately place them them outside of the house in a trash container or protected area where they won’t be reached by animals or children until materials can be disposed of properly. Do not leave bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors even if in a sealed container!
- CLEAN-UP STEPS FOR CLOTHING, BEDDING AND OTHER SOFT MATERIALS
- Never wash clothing, bedding or other soft materials that have come in direct contact with mercury in a washing machine because mercury may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage. If these items have come into direct contact with mercury they should be thrown away. “Direct contact,” means that mercury was (or has been) spilled directly on the clothing. For example: if you broke a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL) so that broken glass and other material from the bulb, including mercury-containing powder, came into contact with your clothing.
- You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, like the clothing you happened to be wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.
- WASH UP.
- Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing bulb debris and cleanup materials.
- As noted above, the clothes you wore to clean up the breakage can be washed unless they made direct contact with the broken bulb or dust.
- FOLLOW YOUR STATE’S DISPOSAL RULES.
- Use the EPA’s website to find the nearest location for disposal of household hazardous waste epa.gov/bulbrecycling.
- If no facilities exist it may be legal to send well-packaged waste to your local landfill. http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/hazard/wastetypes/universal/lamps/index.htm
- VENTILATE THE ROOM FOR SEVERAL MORE HOURS.
- If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.
- Next time you clean the area: Turn off heating or cooling systems, close the room’s doors and open the windows before vacuuming. Leave doors closed and heating or cooling off for 15 minutes post-vacuuming. Follow this regime for several cleanings.
Also check out these frequently asked questions about CFLs below
Another equally important concern is what happens to the environment – the air, soil and water – when tons of discarded bulbs, along with the mercury, are dumped into local landfills? The threat posed by billions of broken CFLs lying in landfills has resulted in some communities requiring their citizens to discard used and broken CFLs in designated recycling centers or in a hazardous-waste collection facility.
If you choose to use CFLs, make sure you and your family understand how to dispose of them properly. For information about your communities recycling program you can go to http://epa.gov/cfl/cflrecycling.html. You can also call 1-800-CLEAN-UP for an automated hotline or visit www.earth911.org (At the top of the earth911.org home page there is a “Recycling Search.” Enter your zip code and press “go.” Click on the “Household Hazardous Waste” link, then the “CFL” link. This page will identify the nearest mercury recycling or disposal facility near you. If the page contains no specific information on CFLs, go back and click on the link for “Mercury Containing Items.”)
And if you are looking for lower CFL bulbs, a 2008 investigation conducted by the Environmental Working Group identified seven lines of CFL bulbs that were superior to the rest. These bulbs, listed in their Green Lighting Guide, which is available online at http://www.ewg.org/sites/default/files/EWGguide_lightbulb.pdf, contain a fraction of the mercury allowed by Energy Star. All the identified bulbs last longer than the Energy Star standard of six thousand hours, and all the recommended bulbs are energy efficient.
If you are concerned about the possible health risks associated with CFLs, LED or halogen lights are good alternatives. Both cost a little more but are as efficient as CFLs and can be recycled easily.
For more information about mercury and compact fluorescent light bulbs go to http://www.epa.gov/cfl/
Have you ever broken a CFL bulb in your home? Were you aware of this information? I’d love to know! So please leave a comment below!
 Stemp-Morlock G. Mercury: Cleanup for Broken CFLs. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2008;116(9):A378. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2535642/