Frequently Asked Questions on Proper Disposal of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs)
Does EPA recommend the use of CFLs?
Yes. CFLs, when compared with standard incandescent bulbs, offer many benefits. First, they help save energy and money. They use 2/3 less energy than standard incandescent light bulbs, and last up to 10 times longer. Replacing a 60-watt incandescent with a 13-watt CFL can save you at least $30 in energy costs over the life of the bulb. Second, CFLs offer convenience, because they last longer, and come in different sizes and shapes to fit almost any fixture. In addition, CFLs produce about 70% less heat than standard incandescent bulbs, so they’re safer to operate and can help cut energy costs associated with home cooling. When shopping, always look for ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs.
Is it true that CFLs contain mercury? Why and how much?
CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing – an average of 5 milligrams (roughly equivalent to the tip of a ball-point pen). Mercury is an essential, irreplaceable element in CFLs and is what allows the bulb to be an efficient light source. By comparison, older home thermometers contain 500 milligrams of mercury and many manual thermostats contain up to 3000 milligrams. It would take between 100 and 600 CFLs to equal those amounts.
There is currently no substitute for mercury in CFLs; however, manufacturers have taken significant steps to reduce mercury used in their fluorescent lighting products over the past decade.
Should I be concerned about using CFLs in my home, or should I take any special precautions?
CFLs are safe to use in your home. No mercury is released when the bulbs are in use and they pose no danger to you or your family when used properly. However, CFLs are made of glass tubing and can break if dropped or roughly handled. Be careful when removing the lamp from its packaging, installing it, or replacing it. Always screw and unscrew the lamp by its base, and never forcefully twist the CFL into a light socket by its tubes. Used CFLs should be disposed of properly using the guidance below.
What should I do with a CFL when it burns out?
Follow these guidelines to dispose your CFL properly:
- Like paint, batteries, thermostats, and other hazardous household items, CFLs should be disposed of properly. Do not throw CFLs away in your household garbage if better disposal options exist. To find out what to do first check the following website: www.earth911.org or by calling 1-877-EARTH911 for local disposal options. Another option is to check directly with your local waste management agency for recycling options and disposal guidelines in your community. Additional information is available at www.lamprecycle.org. Finally, IKEA stores take back used CFLs, and other retailers are currently exploring take- back programs.
- If your local waste management agency offers no other disposal options except your household garbage, place the CFL in a plastic bag and seal it before putting it in the trash. If your waste agency incinerates its garbage, you should search a wider geographic area for proper disposal options. Never send a CFL or other mercury- containing product to an incinerator.
- ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs have a two-year warranty. If the bulb fails within the warranty period, return it to your retailer.
What should I do if a CFL breaks?
Because there is such a small amount of mercury in CFLs, your greatest risk if a bulb breaks is getting cut from glass shards. Research indicates that there is no immediate health risk to you or your family should a bulb break and it’s cleaned up properly. You can minimize any risks by following these proper clean-up and disposal guidelines:
- Sweep up—don’t vacuum—all of the glass fragments and fine particles.
- Place broken pieces in a sealed plastic bag and wipe the area with a damp paper towel to pick up any stray shards of glass or fine particles. Put the used towel in the plastic bag as well.
- If weather permits, open windows to allow the room to ventilate.
What is mercury, what are the sources of mercury emissions, and what are the risks?
Mercury is an element (Hg on the periodic table) found naturally in the environment. Mercury emissions in the air can come from both natural and man-made sources. Utility power plants (mainly coal-fired) are the primary man-made source, as mercury that naturally exists in coal is released into the air when coal is burned to make electricity. Coal-fired power generation accounts for roughly 40% of the mercury emissions in the U.S. EPA is implementing policies to reduce airborne mercury emissions. Under regulations issued in 2005, coal-fired power plants will need to reduce their emissions by 70 percent by 2018.
CFLs present an opportunity to prevent mercury emissions from entering the environment because they help to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. A coal-fired power plant will emit 13.6 milligrams of mercury to produce electricity required to use an incandescent light bulb, compared to 3.3 milligrams for a CFL.
Even in areas without significant coal-fired power generation as part of the electricity mix (e.g., Alaska and the Pacific Northwest), there are other, equally positive environmental
impacts from saving energy through the use of CFLs: reduction of nitrogen oxides (which cause smog), and prevention of substantial quantities of CO2, a greenhouse gas (which is linked to global warming), as well as other air pollutants.
Airborne mercury poses a very low risk of exposure. However, when mercury emissions deposit into lakes and oceans, they can transform into a highly toxic form that builds up in fish. Fish consumption is the most common pathway for human exposure to mercury. Pregnant women and young children are most vulnerable to the effects of this type of mercury exposure. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that most people are not exposed to harmful levels of mercury through fish consumption. However, the FDA and state agencies do issue public health advisories.
EPA offers additional information and resources on all sources of mercury at www.epa.gov/mercury.