Compact Fluorescents and Mercury

This much is true — compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) contain mercury and mercury is toxic.

Also true — the mercury is sealed in, so you won’t be exposed unless a bulb breaks AND you don’t follow a few simple clean-up steps (below).

This, too, is true — many of America’s favorite food fish are contaminated with mercury from coal-fired power plants. Use less mercury by using energy-efficient CFLs and you will reduce the mercury in our food supply. Meanwhile, use this guide to steer clear of the most contaminated fish.

Finally — watch out for processed foods made with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), including many yogurts, dressings, condiments and cereals. A recent study found mercury in nearly a third of the products tested, including foods and beverages by Quaker, Hershey’s, Kraft and Smucker’s. You can’t tell from the label which do or do not contain the kind of HFCS made with mercury, so it’s safest to avoid foods made with HFCS altogether. Probably healthier for you anyway.

But back to bulbs…. read my piece for NRDC for more information and PRINT and keep this guide handy in case a bulb ever breaks:
CFL Clean-up and Disposal Guide


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7 Responses to Compact Fluorescents and Mercury

  1. Anonymous March 24, 2009 at 7:20 pm #

    Hi…I know intellectually all that you say is true, but in all honesty, I don’t like the light that comes from these bulbs. The light is too white, too bright and I feel like I am in a hospital! I do use them in parts of my apt., but other rooms I just can’t stand them. So, I guess I am doing part of my part to be eco green and friendly as far as light bulbs go. I know I could be better, but I still can’t get used to that bright light which is quite harsh in some areas! 🙂

  2. Kevin March 24, 2009 at 8:01 pm #

    Basically, the steps you provide to clean up these bulbs imply that I should be wearing a HazMat suit? I don’t care how you or anyone explains away the benefits versus the risks of these bulbs; they are hazardous. We should not use them. Lastly, I do not even know where the hazardous waste disposal center is in my area and I can promise you I am not going to take the time to locate it (like everyone who hasn’t read your article). Under the same logic, all bulbs broken or not should be disposed of “properly.” ‘Hogwash.’ It is best not to use these bulbs, considering most people are lazy about disposal and generally uneducated on the dangers.

  3. Anonymous March 24, 2009 at 8:16 pm #

    There are CFLs that look like natural sunlight, or the yellowish incandescent light we’re all accustomed to … doesn’t have to be harsh and bright white.

    However, although I replaced all my incandescents with CFLs when they became more affordable in the last couple of years, I’m having second thoughts about the mercury, especially with a young child in the house. the risk doesn’t seem worth it to me, despite the energy savings.

    By the way, what genius even came up with the idea to make a more efficient bulb that was highly toxic if broken? Talk about one step forward and two steps back!

    And at the very least, call me lazy, but I don’t wanna have to drive somewhere to dispose of spent CFLs … and, by the way, wouldn’t that kind of defeat the whole energy savings thing? Burn fossil fuel to dispose of bulbs that save electricity but are highly toxic?

    Instead, why not focus on developing and marketing LED arrays … way more efficient than CFLs, and no toxins.

  4. Anonymous March 25, 2009 at 3:57 am #

    Great article.

    I would also point out that the correct way to screw in, as well as remove, a CFL is by grasping it on the white plastic base with your fingertips and carefully twisting. This is why CFLs have extended white plastic bases that go beyond the actual metallic connector, whereas incandescents do not. It is never a good idea to attempt to install or remove a CFL by grasping the glass itself and twisting. If you overdo it or if the bulb is just a little stuck, the glass can easily break at its base because the tubes themselves are so thin.

    CFLs are great for bathroom lights, outdoor lights, ceiling lights and the like… where risk of breakage by accident is very low. I would not recommend them in standing lamps in houses with children. For those who are very serious about avoiding incandescents, higher-risk applications should be left to a different technology: LED bulbs. They’re expensive and little known, but they can last for decades and are even greener than CFLs.

    -Paul Ronco
    Fredericksburg VA

  5. Sheryl March 25, 2009 at 7:15 am #

    Thanks for these comments. Let me address some of these points.

    LIGHT COLOR: CFLs now come in a range of light colors. Choose bulbs with a low Correlated Color Temperature (CCT) — under 3200K — for a softer white light. Go with 2550-2800K for a really warm color.

    CLEAN-UP: Maybe my instructions sounded complicated, but the procedure is not. You just open the window, turn off any heating or air conditioning that blows air around, and pick up the broken pieces with a wad of damp paper towels. Then you put the broken pieces and towels in a sealed plastic bag. If you don’t have sealable bags (good for you), double bag the material with any plastic bags you have around.

    As far as I’m concerned, cleaning up ANY broken bulb is a hassle because the slivers of glass spread everywhere. I always find it necessary to vacuum or sweep multiple times to avoid splinters. Cleaning up a broken CFL is just a tad more trouble.

    DISPOSAL OF BROKEN BULBS: Yes, it’s a hassle to get to your hazardous waste drop-off site, and yes, many people don’t know where it is — but they should, and not just for CFLs. Batteries, motor oil and paint are some of the other things that should be disposed of there (assuming, of course, that your community has proper facilities).

    If you can’t get there right away, put the bagged bulb outside the house until you can.

    HOW TO SCREW CFLs IN: Paul, thank you for including that information! I am going to quote it in a new posting so other people will see it.

    BETTER ALTERNATIVES: LEDs are the wave of the future, but they’re not as good as they need to be yet. The quality of the light is not yet up to snuff and the cost is too high for most consumers. But their time is coming soon. For more about LEDs, see:

  6. Sheryl March 25, 2009 at 7:28 am #

    Meant to add —

    If you’re ok with the light and price of LEDs, by all means get them. Not only do they have no mercury, they are even more energy-efficient than CFLs. Also, they last longer and break less easily.

  7. Anonymous March 25, 2009 at 4:53 pm #

    Thank you for posting the info on Light Color- that has been my main holdback- I tried CFL’s but they had hurt my eyes. I will be on the lookout for the lower CCT!