Broke Your CFL? Don’t Panic!

The typical dose of mercury in a CFL is about the size
of a pen tip (circled in red), and these doses
have been getting smaller and smaller.
(Photo provided by EPA.)
Australia has already begun to phase out the incandescent light bulb, and the energy legislation recently signed by President Bush has begun that process in the United States. Every time I turn around, it seems, someone is handing me a brand new compact fluorescent light (CFL) to advance the cause of energy efficiency and help save the planet. CFLs are becoming ubiquitous in households all over California. We taught them in the pages of Home Energy all the time. And that’s a good thing, right?

Brandy Bridges, of Ellsworth, Maine may not think so. A cleaning company quoted her a price of $2,000 to clean her house after she broke a CFL.

The benefits of CFLs are many–they use about 75% less energy than incandescents and last up to ten times longer. Replacing a 75W incandescent with an 18W CFL will save you about $46 in electricity costs over the life of the bulb, and that is at current electricity prices, which no doubt will go up, making today’s CFLs an even better deal. Energy Star CFLs ( won’t flicker, give warmer light, and there are a variety of them, from the ubiquitous A-line bulb, to candelabras.

But, and it’s a big but, CFLs won’t give light without mercury. The average CFL on the shelf at your local hardware store has about 4 mg of mercury in it. Mercury vapor is harmful to humans, and there is enough mercury accumulated in some of the fish we eat to make this Californian think twice about ordering salmon for dinner.

Thankfully, there are ways to clean up a broken CFL that don’t involve an overly frightened and/or greedy cleaning company (, and recycling centers are available, if not yet ubiquitous (that word again!) (

Even if the worst happens and you break a CFL bulb, the EPA estimates that at most only 6.8% of the 4 mg of mercury will be released, or about 0.27 mg, since most of it is in the glass, electrodes, and in the phosphor coating on the inside of the glass. Incinerating a bulb will potentially release more mercury vapor, if there are no pollution controls on the incinerator.

But even if the CFL released all of it’s mercury–according to Richard Benware, a graduate student at Cornell who researched CFLs last summer for EPA’s Energy Star program–it would still be a better choice than an incandescent, because over its lifetime, the 15W CFL will have prevented the release of 5.67 mg of mercury from an average power plant.

Of course, recycling is best, and that is still a problem. Alan Meier, Home Energy’s senior executive editor, admits to turning part of his garage into a “temporary hazardous waste holding facility” to hold his family’s used CFLs, since the nearest CFL recycling center is 13 miles away from his home in Berkeley, through “one of the worst traffic jams in the United States.” There is help in finding those recycling centers, near and far ( But we need to put the same effort used in making CFLs ubiquitous into making disposing of them in a clean safe manner just as ubiquitously easy.

You know what I mean.

Jim Gunshinan is Managing Editor of Home Energy Magazine. He holds an M.S. in Bioengineering from Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania, and a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree from University of Notre Dame.

latitude 37.8686, longitude -122.267

Mercury falling with the rise of CFL bulbs 23 April,2013Jim Gunshinan


Jim Gunshinan

Jim Gunshinan is the editor of Home Energy, the magazine of sustainable home building and renovation.

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