While installing a new light fixture in Allie’s room today, I accidentally dropped and broke a compact fluorescent bulb. At first I didn’t think much of it, but then I went online to see if there were any special clean-up requirements. I was pretty shocked at what I found…
I knew that CF bulbs are about 75% more efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs (save money, save the environment, right?). And I knew they contain some mercury (one of the most toxic substances known to man). But I had no idea how dangerous CF bulbs can be. A recent study conducted by the State of Maine found that a single broken CF bulb can cause levels of mercury vapor 100 times greater than the federal guidelines for chronic exposure (there are no guidelines for acute exposure). And mercury levels can remain high even after cleanup is attempted.
Based on this, the EPA recently began to discourage use of CF bulbs over carpet due to the difficulty of cleanup. And when a CF bulb burns out, you’re supposed to recycle them. Who knew that? And who’s going to go through the trouble to do it? The answer is nobody — 98% of CF bulbs are not recycled.
CF bulbs still put less total mercury into the environment when you consider that they ease the burden on coal-fired power plants. But the risk of bringing concentrated levels of mercury into your home is much higher. I’m not sure it’s a good trade-off.
P.S. In case you break a CF bulb, here are the latest cleanup guidelines from the Maine study.