What Consumers Need to Know About Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are small fluorescent light bulbs that use up to 75 percent less energy than a traditional incandescent bulb and can be screwed into a regular light socket.

Switching from traditional light bulbs to CFLs is a change every American can make right now to reduce energy use at home and prevent greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change.

Lighting accounts for close to 20 percent of the average home’s electric bill. Changing to CFLs costs little upfront and provides a quick return on investment. If every home in America replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL, it would save enough energy to light more than three million homes and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of more than 800,000 cars annually.

As consumers look for ways to conserve energy, save money and help the environment, use of these light bulbs is increasing. Unfortunately, some of the properties that make these bulbs energy-efficient can also cause concerns in other areas.

Information on this page and a related associated fact sheet are intended to provide consumers with information they need to make an informed decision about the use and disposal of CFLs.

What’s the issue?

CFLs contain about five milligrams of mercury (roughly equivalent to the tip of a ball-point pen) sealed within the glass tubing. By comparison, older home thermometers contain 500 milligrams of mercury, and many manual thermostats contain up to 3,000 milligrams. It would take between 100 and 600 CFLs to equal those amounts.

Mercury is an essential, irreplaceable element in CFLs and is what allows the bulb to be an efficient light source. Mercury is an element that, if breathed and absorbed by the body, can cause neurological damage.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy assure us that CFLs are safe to use in your home. No mercury is released when the bulbs are in use, and they pose no danger to you or your family when used properly. However, CFLs are made of glass tubing and can break if dropped or roughly handled. Be careful when removing the lamp from its packaging, installing it or replacing it.

Ironically, CFLs present an opportunity to prevent mercury from entering our air, where it most affects our health. The highest source of mercury in our air comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal, the most common fuel used in the U.S. to produce electricity. Energy-efficient CFLs present an opportunity to prevent mercury emissions from entering the environment because they help to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants.

A CFL uses 75 percent less energy than an incandescent light bulb and lasts up to 10 times longer. A power plant will emit 10 milligrams (mg) of mercury to produce the electricity needed to run an incandescent bulb compared to only 2.4 mg of mercury to run a CFL for the same time. That means that use of the CFL will actually prevent six to eight milligrams of mercury from entering the environment.

What should I do if I break a bulb?

The risks to you and your family from breaking a CFL are small. The amount of mercury in a CFL is very small, about five milligrams, or the size of the tip of a ball point pen. In comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury. It would take at least 100 CFLs to equal the amount of mercury in a single thermometer.

The mercury in a CFL is needed to help turn the electric current into white light you get from the bulb. Once turned on, a very small amount of the mercury in the CFL becomes a vapor. If a CFL bulb breaks, a small amount of the mercury vapor will be released in the air. Unlike the elemental mercury found in fever thermometers, which are the shiny beads of liquid mercury, you will probably not see any mercury with the naked eye if you break a CFL bulb. The white powder you see is from the phosphorus coating on the inside of the CFL.

So if you break a bulb, you’re at little risk for significant mercury exposure. It is important, though, to carefully clean up and dispose of a broken CFL to avoid spreading around the phosphorus powder, glass and any remaining mercury.

I broke a bulb a while ago and have questions about whether my family and home are safe. What do I do?

If you took the proper steps to clean up a broken CFL in the past, as described above, you are probably at little risk for any significant exposure. If you are still unsure, however, your health department is the best place to get information about indoor air quality and health-related risks from mercury. You can contact the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), Bureau of Environmental Health, if you have questions about health risks related to mercury. Email Greg Stein, ODH, or call him at (614) 466-1390.

How should I dispose of unbroken or burned out bulbs?

Like paint, batteries, thermostats and other hazardous household items, CFLs should be disposed of properly. Do not throw CFLs away in your household garbage if better disposal options exist.

  • If under warranty, return it to your retailer.
    ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs have a warranty. If the bulb fails within the warranty period, return it to your retailer.
  • Recycle it.
    U.S. EPA recommends that consumers take advantage of local recycling options for CFLs where available. U.S. EPA is working with CFL manufacturers and major U.S. retailers to expand disposal options. For more information, go to:
  • Manage it with other household hazardous waste.
    Many communities and solid waste management districts (SWMD) hold household hazardous waste collection events. You may take CFLs to these events to be disposed of along with other household hazardous waste such as leftover paint and chemicals. If your county isn't listed, there are some companies who will take CFLs from residents for a fee. The charge is typically between $0.25 and $0.70 per bulb - with 50 cents being the most common. Ohio EPA does not endorse these companies but is merely providing their contact information to assist our customers.
  • Place it in sealed bags in outside trash.
    If you can find no other disposal option, private residents may place used CFLs in their household garbage. Be sure to seal the CFL in two plastic bags and put it into the outside trash. Do not dispose of CFLs in an incinerator.

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