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Mercury in CFL Bulbs, Should I Worry?

09.13.11 Mercury in CFL Bulbs, Should I Worry?

mercury in clf bulbs

Have you been wondering if CFLs are safe to use since they contain mercury?  Why do they need to contain mercury? And what should you do if one breaks?  The following is a guest post to try and answer some of these questions.

Lighting as we’ve known it is going through some major changes.  In an effort to conserve energy and cut emissions many countries are in the process of phasing out the traditional incandescent light bulb and replacing it with more energy efficient and eco-friendly models; specifically the compact florescent light (CFL). 

Why CFLs?

  1. The production of incandescent bulbs creates large amounts of pollution
  2. As incandescent bulbs heat up they use a lot of electricity and since half the electrical plants in the US are powered by coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, it’s a large stain on the environment.

CFLs, on the other hand are the "greener" option because they cut back on emissions in both production and use. They generate little heat, using only a third of the power of incandescent bulbs, and last hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours longer.

The downside of CFLs?  Each CFL bulb contains a hazardous material: toxic mercury.

Now, if your heart just skipped a beat knowing these bulbs are in our homes, schools, and workplaces you’re not alone.  After all isn’t mercury the metallic substance we were always told to stay away from if a glass thermometer breaks?  Isn’t it the playful looking material we aren’t supposed to handle with bare hands or swallow? The answer is yes to all of this and more.

Nevertheless, the key to CFLs is the small amount of mercury (approximately 4 milligrams) contained in each bulb and without that mercury the bulb would not function.  Why?  CFLs produce light when the mercury molecules are "excited" by electricity that runs between two electrodes positioned in the base of the bulb. The "excited" mercury emits ultraviolet light, which in turn excites the tube’s phosphor coating, leading it to emit the light that we see.

That said, we are still talking about mercury.  But, as long as a broken bulb is cleaned up and disposed of properly (because of the mercury they can't be thrown out with your regular garbage) the amount in each encasing isn’t enough to cause harm.

Accordingly to the EPA, if a bulb breaks proper clean up includes the following:

  1. Pregnant women, children, and any pets in the vicinity are most susceptible to the effects of mercury and should be the first to vacate.
  2. Fans or central air should be turned off so mercury or its vapors don’t spread.
  3. The room should be aired out for at least ten minutes.
  4. All shards should be placed in a closed container for proper disposal at a CFL recycling center.
  5. Future breaks can be prevented by holding CFLs by the base and wherever possible use lamp covers to protect the glass tubing.

This coming January, the US government’s "2007 Energy Independence and Security Act" takes effect which requires manufacturers of incandescent bulbs to make bulbs that are 25 – 30% more efficient, meaning there will still be an alternative which is great news for people who are uncomfortable using only CFLs.  Furthermore, it’s a positive step in the delicate balancing act of efficiency over safety and trying to better understand how far compromises on health should go when trying to achieve better standards. 

Jakob Barry writes for Networx.com. He covers various home improvement topics including eco-friendly CFL bulbs and safe electrical installation.

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