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Going Green Safely: Disposing Compact Fluorescents

By: Myles Henderson Email
By: Myles Henderson Email

May 21, 2009

CFLs are leading the way in the green movement; they are cost effective and save energy. They use about 75% less energy than a traditional incandescent bulb and they last about 10 times longer. But there is a bit of a dark side to CFL technology: they contain mercury.

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal and the only metal that is liquid at room temperature but it can be toxic. Adam Peters from Uva Hazardous Materials Program says, "It evaporates just like any other liquid. The problem is the vapor is odorless, tasteless, and invisible."

CFLs contain a relatively small amount of mercury that is trapped inside the coils. Megan Green from Eck Supply says, "Compact Fluorescents contain about 5 milligrams of mercury in each lamp and they do not give off any mercury when they are use." In comparison, a household fever thermometer could contain up to 100 milligrams of mercury. And because CFLs do contain a little bit of mercury there are some special safety concerns.

CFLs are becoming common in most households but there is some question as to what happens if they break. CFLs contain about 5 milligrams of mercury and the only way you can be exposed to it is if the bulb breaks. Peters says, "The biggest hazard of mercury exposure is breathing the vapor."

If a bulb breaks, first open a window or a door, turn off your central air or fans, and leave the room for about 15 minutes. Don't forget to bring any pets with you. After 15 minutes, carefully pick up glass pieces and place them in sealed plastic bag. Then use sticky tape to pick up the smaller pieces. Avoid using a vacuum cleaner because that can spread the mercury vapor back into the air. After you finish, seal the bag, wash your hands and take the CFL to the recycling center.

"It's a small amount of mercury but you want to take the extra precaution to make sure that they are being disposed of properly. If you put them in the trash they are going to go into a landfill and sit there," says Green.

The best way to prevent CFLs from breaking is to be careful when removing the bulb from its packaging, installing it, or replacing it. Always screw the bulb in by the base, not the glass.

Here is a link to more information about CFLs and proper clean up procedures.

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