A broken fluorescent bulb? What now?

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Energy analyst John Rogers of the Union of Concerned Scientists put it best, “don’t panic” but do clean it up safely. When a fluorescent bulb, or CFL, breaks, a small amount of mercury is released as mercury vapor. To minimize exposure to mercury vapor follow the steps outlined below.

Should I just stick with incandescent bulbs?

The answer is NO. CFLs and LEDs are preferable to incandescents. The EPA states that despite small emissions from broken or improperly disposed of CFLS, their use “actually helps reduce total mercury emissions in the U.S. because of their significant energy savings.”  The Union of Concerned Scientists agrees, saying even a broken CFL means less mercury in the atmosphere than a conventional bulb. National Geographic concurs, and separates CFL fact from fiction here. Compared to conventional bulbs, CFLs use 75% less energy and last 6 times longer. LEDs use 80% less energy and last 25 times longer.

EPA Steps for Handling a Broken CFL:

Before Cleanup

  1. Have people and pets leave the room, and avoid the breakage area on the way out.
  2. Open a window or door to the outdoors and leave the room for 5-10 minutes.
  3. Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning (H&AC) system, if you have one.
  4. Collect materials you will need to clean up the broken bulb:
    • Stiff paper or cardboard
    • Sticky tape (e.g., duct tape)
    • Damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes (for hard surfaces)
    • Glass jar with a metal lid (such as a canning jar) or a sealable plastic bag(s)

Cleanup Steps for Hard Surfaces

  1. Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place debris and paper/cardboard in a glass jar with a metal lid. If a glass jar is not available, use a sealable plastic bag. (NOTE: Since a plastic bag will not prevent the mercury vapor from escaping, remove the plastic bag(s) from the home after cleanup.)
  2. 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.
  3. Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.
  4. Vacuuming of hard surfaces during cleanup is not recommended unless broken glass remains after all other cleanup steps have been taken. [NOTE: It is possible that vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor, although available information on this problem is limited.] If vacuuming is needed to ensure removal of all broken glass, keep the following tips in mind:
    • Keep a window or door to the outdoors open;
    • Vacuum the area where the bulb was broken using the vacuum hose, if available; and
    • Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister) and seal the bag/vacuum debris, and any materials used to clean the vacuum, in a plastic bag.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Wash your hands with soap and water after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing bulb debris and cleanup materials.
  4. Continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the H&AC system shut off, as practical, for several hours.

Cleanup Steps for Carpeting or Rugs

If you have further questions, call your local poison control center 1-800-222-1222. Never throw a CFL (broken or intact) into household trash as they end up in landfill and it’s illegal in many areas. To find a recycling center to dispose of CFLs:

  1. Go to earth911.com
  2. Many hardware supply stores and retailers offer in-store recycling.
  3. Call 1-800-CLEAN-UP

Additional Resources:

View a short webinar on mercury and other heavy metals. Energystar.gov notes “mercury released into the air is the main way that mercury gets into water and bio-accumulates in fish. Eating fish contaminated with mercury is the main way for humans to be exposed.” See NRDC’s Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish.

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