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Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

What are compact fluorescent light bulbs?

Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are small fluorescent light bulbs that use about 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), CFLs can help use less electricity in homes and prevent emissions that may lead to global climate change. CFLs contain a very small amount of non-visible mercury sealed within the glass tubing. No mercury is released when the bulbs are in good condition or in use. When broken, they have the potential to release a small amount of mercury vapor.

What is mercury?

Mercury is a silver-colored, shiny, liquid metal. Mercury evaporates into the air and breathing this air is the most common way people may be exposed. Mercury is a metal that occurs naturally in small amounts in the environment and is used in some consumer products.

How much mercury is in CFLs?

An average of 4 milligrams (mg) of mercury is in a CFL. A mercury thermometer may contain about 500 mg of mercury. About 500 mg to 700 mg or less of mercury is considered a small spill. Some CFLs may contain as little as 1.4 mg to 2.5 mg per light bulb. The mercury in a CFL is not visible.

How does mercury affect health?

Health problems associated with mercury depend on how much has entered your body, how it entered your body, how long you have been exposed to it, and how your body responds to the mercury. Children are more susceptible to mercury poisoning than adults. Exposure to small amounts of mercury over a long period, and brief contact with high levels of mercury may cause adverse health effects. Symptoms depend on the length or level of exposure.

Will the amount of mercury in a broken CFL cause health effects?

Since there is a very small amount of mercury in CFLs, exposure to the mercury in a broken bulb should not cause health effects.

How do I clean up a broken CFL bulb?

Open windows and turn off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system for 15 minutes or more. On hard surfaces, carefully scoop up glass pieces and powder from the inside of the bulb using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a sealed plastic bag. Use sticky tape to clean up any remaining small glass fragments and powder. Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel and place towels in the plastic bag. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean-up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

Follow the same steps for clean-up for carpeting or a rug. If a vacuum is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken and dispose of the vacuum bag or wipe the inside of the collection canister on the vacuum.

Clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL may be washed, as well as the clothing worn when cleaning up the broken CFL. If shoes come into direct contact with the broken bulb, wipe them off with damp paper towels. Place the used towels in a sealable plastic bag for disposal.

How do I dispose of CFLs?

Although it is legal for citizens to dispose of CFLs in household trash, USEPA and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (Illinois EPA) encourage taking unbroken CFLs to a local recycling center. Local hardware stores and other retail stores may collect CFLs for recycling as well. Recycling of burned out CFLs is one of the best ways to help prevent the release of mercury to the environment by keeping mercury out of landfills and incinerators. 

After cleaning up a broken CFL, immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors until they can be taken to a facility that accepts household hazardous waste. Contact Illinois EPA for a list of hazardous waste collection sites. Wash your hands with soap and water after disposing of any clean-up materials.

Where can I get more information?

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Illinois Environmental Protection Agency

Illinois Department of Public Health
Division of Environmental Health
525 W. Jefferson St.
Springfield, IL 62761
TTY (hearing impaired use only) 800-547-0466

This fact sheet was supported in part by funds from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act trust fund through a cooperative agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.