Go Green Mailbag: CFLs and Mercury

By Kevin Pink, Customer Service and Marketing Assistant

From time to time, we receive several inquiries about the same topic. We’ll try to address those topics in a brief, practical way in this ongoing series we call the Go Green Mailbag. This week, we discuss Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs).


Q: I have heard that Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) contain mercury, which is hazardous. What do I do if a CFL bulb breaks? What do I do when a CFL bulb burns out?

Why do CFL bulbs contain mercury?

Like all fluorescent lights, CFLs use a small amount of mercury vapor contained in the glass bulb along with gases called phosphors. Electricity running into the bulb causes the mercury to emit invisible ultraviolet (UV) light, which excites the phosphor gases, causing them to emit visible light.

What do I do if a CFL bulb breaks?

Typical household bulbs contain less than 5 milligrams of mercury, which is about the size of a ballpoint pen’s tip. The good news is that as long as you take precautions while cleaning up, a broken CFL bulb should pose very little health hazard. The Environmental Protection Agency has a set of best practice guidelines for cleaning up a broken CFL bulb. You should never use vacuum or broom to clean up mercury, as they are very likely to spread it.

  1. Make sure to air out the room by opening windows and turning off any central air/central heating systems for five to ten minutes. Leave the room and take other people and pets with you.
  2. After the room has had some time to air, use a piece of stiff paper or cardboard to help you put the largest pieces of glass into a glass jar, such as a canning jar, or a plastic bag that can be sealed. If you use a plastic bag, seal it inside a second bag to prevent any accidental leaks.
  3. Use a very sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up smaller pieces of glass and any visible powder from inside the bulb, placing any used tape in the jar/bag as well.
  4. Wipe the surface down with a wet paper towel and dispose of that in the jar/bag. Remove the jar or bag containing bulb fragments and any used cleaning supplies to a trash can or other sealed container outside your home.
  5. Contact a local mercury disposal site to see if they will take your jar/bag. Use the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s interactive map to find a site near you. If you are unable to find a site, try your local government office.
  6. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water. If practical, leave the room to air out for several hours.

What do I do when a CFL bulb burns out?

Carefully unscrew your bulb and place it in a bulb box or another secure container that will not allow it to break. Locate a nearby mercury disposal facility using the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s interactive map and drop off your bulb for disposal. Never dispose of a CFL bulb in your regular trash.

If a CFL bulb burns out, is it worth investing in an LED bulb to replace it?

Yes! LED bulbs use approximately 75% less energy than an incandescent bulb, and last as much as 25 times longer. If you are looking for a great deal on LED bulbs, EcoBuilding Bargains sells LEDs of various shapes and sizes for a fraction of the usual retail cost. If you are not sure what type of LED bulb would work best in your space, ENERGY STAR has compiled this useful chart.

For more information on CFL disposal and safety, contact CET’s customer service line at 413-445-4556.

We hope you found this post helpful and informative. Stay tuned for future installments of the Go Green Mailbag!

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