Posted by: nik | September 30, 2012

Busted: the sad story of a CFL disaster

This tubular-type compact fluorescent bulb meet its untimely demise

Previous visitors to our blog may remember the post about our lighting choices.  I was reminded this weekend that my least favorite thing about CFL light bulbs is that they contain mercury, a toxic element know to cause brain damage (Mad Hatter disease) but also kidney and lung disease in humans, not to mention the effects on the environment. Granted, each CFL bulb only contains a very small amount of mercury (about 4 milligrams) but that is still a toxic substance that I would prefer not to have released into my bedroom. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened this past weekend.

This desk lamp is obviously top-heavy and easy to knock over. I should have known better than to put a long CFL bulb in it, but, as they say, live and learn. As I was hurrying around this past weekend I accidentally knocked the lamp over, instantly breaking the bulb. Luckily, no one was hurt and the mess was contained to the top of the dresser, making for a relatively easy clean-up.

Hopefully, since you’re reading this, you won’t have to make the same mistakes. But if you do happen to bust a CFL bulb, here’s the proper clean up procedure, as according to the EPA:

Before Cleanup

  • Have people and pets leave the room.
  • Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.
  • Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.
  • Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb:
    • stiff paper or cardboard;
    • sticky tape;
    • damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes (for hard surfaces); and
    • a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag.

During Cleanup

  • DO NOT VACUUM.  Vacuuming is not recommended unless broken glass remains after all other cleanup steps have been taken.  Vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor.
  • Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.  Scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard.  Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder. Place the used tape in the glass jar or plastic bag.  See the detailed cleanup instructions for more information, and for differences in cleaning up hard surfaces versus carpeting or rugs.
  • Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

After Cleanup

  • Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials, including vacuum cleaner bags, outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of.  Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
  • Next, check with your local government about disposal requirements in your area, because some localities require fluorescent bulbs (broken or unbroken) be taken to a local recycling center. If there is no such requirement in your area, you can dispose of the materials with your household trash.
  • If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.

So I cleaned up the busted bulb and put it out in the garage with the rest of our hazardous waste (rechargeable batteries, etc.) to await the next dump day.

While we’re on the topic, the EPA also published the following chart.

Here’s what it says in English: “Incandescent bad. CFL bulb less bad.”

Here in the US, we are dumping over 100 metric TONS of mercury into the atmosphere every year! As it turns out, the single largest contributor to mercury emissions is coal-fired electric power plants. So, unless we are operating totally offgrid, we can draw a direct correlation from our electrical usage to mercury emissions. The more electricity we use, the more pollution gets dumped into the atmosphere. And opposite is also true: by using less electricity, pollution goes down.

Ironic, isn’t it? The CFL that contains mercury is actually reducing mercury emissions in the long run by operating more efficiently than the incandescent counterpart. Let’s just try to keep the mercury inside the CFL for now. At least until we upgrade to a LED bulb….


  1. I always wonder whether that contributes to the increased ADD, autism, and plain old organ failure and cancer rates in the US when I hear about stuff like this

    • Yes. And potato chips, fingernail polish, diesel, Roundup(c), asbestos, smoke, dioxins, margarine and lead. Maybe we could find a cleaner planet. This one got messy.

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