Facts about mercury in CFLs

Ads and packaging materials for compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) proclaim that they use much less energy and last much longer than standard incandescent bulbs. However, if you read the fine print on the packaging or find the notice on the base of each bulb, you’ll see that it contains mercury.

 While that may raise an alarm in your mind, there’s no need to worry. The amount of mercury inside the glass tubes of an average CFL is miniscule, about the equivalent of the tip of a ballpoint pen, and it’s especially small when compared to other items you may have around your home. The amount of mercury in a CFL runs about 4-5 milligrams (mg), while a glass fever thermometer contains 500 mg and an old-style thermostat could contain up to 3,000 mg.

CFLs, photo courtesy of the Department of Energy

CFLs are safe to handle and use in your home, and they release no mercury when in operation. Even if you break a CFL, the amount of mercury that may become airborne poses a very low risk of exposure, says Energy Star. (To prevent breakage, carefully unpack a CFL, and always screw and unscrew the bulb by its base.) When CFLs burn out or break, the best course of action is to recycle them.

 CFLs fall into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) category of Household Hazardous Waste (HHW), but there’s no federal or state requirement that the bulbs be recycled.

Some hardware stores, including Home Depot, have CFL recycling buckets on hand. To find out if there’s a facility or store near you that accepts CFLs, go to the Earth 911 website at earth911.org or call 800-CLEANUP. Be sure to call the facility or store that’s listed before you make the trip to ensure that it allows homeowners or apartment dwellers to drop off CFLs.

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