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Updates 5-9-08

Compact Fluorescent Lamps and Mercury Concerns


Concerns have been raised about the mercury in Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs), recycling the bulbs, and what to do if they break.  All CFLs contain mercury and some models contain lead. The vast majority of CFLs end up in landfills or trash incinerators where these hazardous substances can get released into the environment.  These problems confound those with the goal of living a life that protects the climate and reduces toxics and wastes.  But CFLs are three times more efficient than standard incandescent light bulbs and significantly reduce mercury, greenhouse gases and other toxic emissions coming from coal-fired power plants.

Solid State Lighting (SSL-including light-emitting diodes (LEDs) technology is developing rapidly, but is still not readily available for general household lighting needs.  The ENERGY STAR criterion for LEDs was released in September 2007.  LEDs will become an alternative as they become more available and affordable, and are longer-lasting and mercury-free. ENERGY STAR-qualified LED lights must have a rated life of at least 25,000 hours.  The specification and distribution of long-lasting CFLs and LEDs minimizes environmental impacts by reducing the number of light bulbs that need to be manufactured, transported, and ultimately recycled, as well as the number that may end up in the trash.  LEDs (which are mercury-free but may contain some other heavy metals) should be evaluated for toxicity and considered when they are determined to be efficient, environmentally preferable and cost-effective for specific applications.

Until LED lighting is widely available, CFLs are the next best alternative.   There are ways to minimize the potential for mercury releases from CFBs:

- Purchase ENERGY STAR-qualified CFLs ( with a minimum rated life of 10,000 hours, and with the highest efficiency (lumens per watt). Use only ENERGY STAR-qualified lighting products, including CFLs and LEDs.

- Specify lamps with 5 mg (5/1000 of a gram) of mercury or less and favor ones with less than 3 mg.  While all CFLs currently contain mercury, the amount they contain can vary from 1-30 milligrams (mg), depending on manufacturer and model, but some CFLs are available with as little as 1 mg of mercury.

- Choose lead-free whenever available (usually labeled as such).

- Choose manufacturers and distributors offering private-sector-financed collection and recycling programs.

- Purchase models with the fewest watts to give you the lumens you need. (CFLs tend to fade over their life; so pick one slightly brighter (30% or so) than the incandescent lamp you are replacing.)

- Choose lamps made by companies pledging to keep mercury content below 5-6 mg by going to

- Consider CFLs or LEDs with separate ballasts and transformers when available (so that bulbs can be changed out separately), just as in fluorescent tube lamps. This will decrease the amount of materials in CFLs and LED lamps requiring disposal, help retain longer-lived components during their entire useful life (like solid-state circuit boards and transformers), and decrease purchase, recycling and disposal costs for manufacturers and consumers alike.

Broken CFLs Cleanup

If a bulb breaks, open a window and leave the room for at least 15 minutes.  Gently cleanup glass and powder, use a wet paper towel for the remaining glass and powder, and dispose all in a glass jar or plastic baggie.  Sticky tape is also good for the powder and glass on carpet.  Avoid vacuuming, but after the next vacuuming, dispose of the bag.  For more detailed instructions, the USEPA fact sheet is available at:


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