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Safely Handling Broken CFL Light Bulbs – Prevent Mercury Exposure

Posted January 21, 2023 by Mike Lewis under Tips

Safely Handling Broken CFL Light Bulbs – Prevent Mercury Exposure


Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs contain a small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. When a CFL bulb breaks, mercury is released as vapor and tiny glass shards, which can pose a health risk if not cleaned up properly. As consumers, we must understand how to safely clean up broken CFL bulbs to avoid mercury exposure. This article provides a step-by-step guide on the proper cleanup process.

Why Mercury is Used in CFL Bulbs

Mercury is used in CFL bulbs as one of the components that allows the bulb to be an efficient light source. Specifically, CFL bulbs contain a small amount of mercury vapor that reacts with an electronic ballast and fluorescent coating on the glass tubing. This reaction is what produces visible light.

The amount of mercury in a CFL bulb is very small, typically 3-5 milligrams. That’s about the amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. However, mercury is hazardous even in tiny amounts, so safety precautions are required when cleaning up a broken bulb.

Dangers of Mercury Exposure

Mercury is a heavy, silvery liquid metal that can vaporize at room temperature. When mercury vapor is inhaled, it is absorbed into the bloodstream and distributed throughout the body. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can damage the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system.

The greatest risk is to young children and pregnant women because mercury can disrupt development of the nervous system. Fetuses are the most vulnerable to developmental effects.

That said, the amount of mercury in a single CFL bulb is not likely to cause significant health issues, especially if proper cleanup procedures are followed. The risks come from long-term mercury vapors in confined indoor air.

What to Do if a CFL Bulb Breaks

If a CFL bulb breaks at home, follow these steps recommended by the EPA:

Open a Window

Immediately open a window and leave the room for at least 15 minutes. This allows any released mercury vapor to dissipate.

Ventilate the Room

After 15 minutes, return to the room and keep the window open for a few hours to continue ventilating the space. If possible, use a fan to circulate outdoor air into the room.

Wear Protective Gear

Before beginning cleanup, put on disposable rubber gloves and eye protection. This prevents cuts from glass and exposure through contact.

Carefully Scoop Up Glass

Use stiff paper or cardboard to scoop up the glass shards and powder. Avoid using a vacuum cleaner as this can spread mercury vapor. Place all collected materials in a sealable plastic bag.

Wipe the Area

Use sticky tape to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder. Wipe the area with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe.

Double Bag Waste

Place all waste, including gloves and paper towels, in a second sealable plastic bag. Keep it in a safe place until you can dispose of it properly.

Wash Your Hands

Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water after cleanup. Also wash any other body parts that may have come into contact with bulb debris.

Proper Disposal of CFL Waste

The sealed bags containing CFL bulb waste should be taken to a hazardous waste disposal center. Do not simply place in the trash. Contact your local sanitation department to ask about disposal options in your area.

Some retail stores like IKEA and Home Depot have CFL recycling programs where you can bring spent bulbs for proper mercury disposal.

Preventing Breakage

While cleaning up broken CFL bulbs takes some care, the process is straightforward if you follow safety steps. The best way to avoid mercury exposure is to prevent breakage in the first place through proper bulb handling. Here are some tips:

  • Carefully unpack and handle new CFL bulbs.

  • Screw and unscrew bulbs by the base only, not the glass.

  • Use bulbs in enclosed fixtures with shades to protect from impact.

  • Handle spent bulbs gently and recycle properly.

  • Store used bulbs in closed boxes until disposed of.

By understanding the risks of mercury and following safe cleanup and disposal steps, we can safely reap the energy-efficiency benefits of CFLs. Proper handling prevents avoidable mercury vapor exposure.

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