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Illinois Country Living

January 2008 Issue: FeatureCommentaryCurrents SafetyGardenEnergy SolutionsFinest Cooking More

Duane Friend
Duane Friend
University of Illinois Extension, Springfield Extension Center

Safety & Health:

Compact Fluorescent Light Disposal
Improper disposal increases the potential for mercury exposure

Many households are switching from traditional light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs, or CFLs. These bulbs use significantly less electricity. According to Energy Star, if every American home replaced just one light bulb with a CFL, we would save enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes for a year and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of nearly 800,000 cars.

Most compact fluorescents contain four to five milligrams of mercury, which would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. Mercury is an essential component for these lamps to operate. Mercury vapor in the lamp is used in conjunction with phosphor to produce visible light.

Any product containing mercury should be handled with care. Chronic exposure to mercury poses health risks. Normal operation of CFLs does not pose a health or environmental risk, but improper disposal increases the potential for mercury exposure. Breakage of lamps releases mercury, which may occur if CFLs are thrown into regular trash, or are accidentally broken.

Simple safety measures to prevent accidental breakage in the home include screwing and unscrewing the lamp at its base, not by the bulb. Do not forcefully twist a CFL into a light socket.

If a compact fluorescent bulb is broken in the home, there are several steps to follow to decrease mercury exposure risk. If applicable, windows should be opened in the room where the light broke for at least 15 minutes, to allow proper ventilation. People should not be in the room during that time. After ventilating the room, carefully place glass pieces in a plastic bag that can be sealed, using rubberized gloves. If a CFL breaks on a carpet, remove all materials possible by hand, again using rubberized gloves. Sticky tape may be used to assist in picking up small glass fragments and powder. If a vacuum is still needed, discard the vacuum bag after use. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up bulb fragments on hard surfaces. Pick up fragments, and wipe up any powder by using a damp paper towel.

After placing cleanup materials in a sealed bag, place that bag in a second sealed bag and place in an outdoor trash container or protected area for the next trash pick up.

According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, mercury-containing lamps discarded by households are not subject to hazardous waste rules and can be accepted by municipal-waste facilities. However, a better option is to place bulbs that are broken or no longer work in a sealed plastic bag and dispose through a Household Hazardous Waste collection site. To know if such a collection is taking place, visit the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency schedule at

While these bulbs do contain mercury, the U.S. Environmental Protection agency states that CFLs help reduce the amount of mercury entering the atmosphere. Many power plants use coal, which releases mercury to the atmosphere when burned. Since CFLs require less electricity, the reduction in demand will allow a power plant to emit less mercury. In addition, mercury content in CFLs is expected to drop even further, due to changes in technology.


For More Information:

For more information, visit the following Web sites:

Duane Friend is a Natural Resources Management Educator at the University of Illinois Extension, Springfield Extension Center. Contact him at (217) 782-6515 or e-mail him at


© 2007 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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