CFLs do contain a small amount of mercury – usually 5 mg. This is roughly the amount of mercury found in two cans of albacore tuna or enough to cover the period at the end of this sentence. By way of comparison a single dental amalgam filling has 100 times more mercury according to the EPA.
For a comparison of the amounts of mercury in common everyday items all around us click here.
The amount of mercury contained in a CFL is relatively harmless and can be used safely in the home if proper precautions are taken. Other everyday household items that contain mercury are standard glass thermometers – which contain 100 times more mercury – and standard household thermostats – which contain 1200 times more mercury.
In the event that a CFL does break in your household there is no need to contact the EPA or spend thousands on a hazmat team. The rumors about CFL clean-ups costing thousands of dollars are the result of one incident in Michigan in which the consumer was given incorrect advice by the local government. In the end, the consumer was not charged for the clean-up and testing revealed no mercury contamination.
A recent Harvard study showed that should a CFL break and release all 5 mg of mercury into the air (EPA estimates only 11% of the 5 mg would likely be released) that normal air flow will clear the room within an hour. This level and duration of mercury exposure is not likely to be dangerous as it is lower than the OSHA standard for exposure over an eight hour period.
However, CFLs do contain a small amount of hazardous material and proper clean-up procedures should be followed. The EPA’s recommendations can be found at: http://www.epa.gov/mercury/spills/#fluorescent.
The first choice for disposal of a broken CFL is always proper recycling. BEC has recycling stations at each of its district offices and more can be located through: http://earth911.org/.
Otherwise, check with your local county waste disposal agency for proper disposal procedures. If you are unable to take any of these actions, make sure to double bag all of the debris before placing it in your trash receptacle.
According to the EPA, most mercury vapor inside CFLs becomes bound to the inside of the bulb as it is used. The rest of the mercury – roughly 11 percent – is released into the air or water when sent to a landfill, assuming the light bulb is broken. Therefore if all 290 million CFLs sold in 2007 were sent to the landfill (vs. recycled as a worst case) – they would add 0.1 percent to U.S. mercury emissions.
However, since CFLs use up to 75% less energy than an incandescent bulb and last up to 10 times longer they actually reduce the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere. A power plant will emit 10mg of mercury to produce the electricity to run an incandescent bulb compared to only 2.4 mg of mercury to run a CFL. Additionally, since CFLs last up to 8 times longer than a standard bulb for each CFL used there are eight less incandescent bulbs ending up in landfills (source: Michigan DOE). According to the EPA, a 13-watt 8,000 rated CFL (60 watt equivalent, common light bulb type) will save 376 kWh over its lifetime, thus avoiding 4.5 mg of mercury. If the bulb goes into a landfill, overall emissions savings would drop to 4.2 mg.