How to Clean Up a Broken CFL Bulb

A few days after Christmas, the EPA issued updated guidance on how to clean up a broken compact fluorescent lamp (“CFL”) bulb.  CFLs are made with a small amount of mercury that can be released as vapor when broken.  That vapor is a health risk, although the EPA still encourages the use of CFLs to save energy and reduce GHG emissions.  Here’s an outline of the EPA’s CFL cleanup guidance:

Before Cleanup

  • Clear room of people and pets
  • Open a window or door to ventilate the room for 5-10 minutes
  • If on, shut off the central HVAC system
  • Gather cleanup materials

During Cleanup

  • Collect broken glass and visible powder
  • Contain glass and powder (in a glass jar with lid or sealable plastic bag)

Hard Surface Cleanup

  • Scoop glass/powder with paper or cardboard
  • Use duct tape or something sticky to grab remaining glass/powder
  • Wipe the surface clean with damp paper towel or moist wipes
  • Place everything in jar or plastic bag
  • Place outside in trash or protected area for proper disposal

Carpet/Rug Cleanup

  • Scoop glass/powder with paper or cardboard
  • Use duct tape to grab remaining glass/powder
  • Place everything in jar or plastic bag
  • Place outside in trash or protected area for proper disposal

After Cleanup

  • Avoid leaving bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors
  • Place bulb materials and debris outside in trash or other protected area
  • Wash hands with soap/water after disposal outside
  • Naturally ventilate room for several hours
  • Leave HVAC system off while ventilating room

The EPA discourages the use of a vacuum to clean broken CFLs.  That said, if you’re going to use a vacuum, the EPA has some detailed guidance on how to do it.  Among other things, you should try to use the vacuum hose, remove the vacuum bag, clean the vacuum, and seal the bag and cleanup materials.

The EPA also has several suggestions to avoid breaking a CFL in the first place.  You should avoid twisting the glass tubing and try to use CFLs with a cover over the spiral or folded glass tubes.  Also, CFLs should be replaced with a drop cloth on the ground — this will soften a drop or contain breakage.

CFLs have about 3-4 milligrams of mercury contained within the glass tubes and should be disposed of properly.  To find a disposal site, visit Earth 911 or the EPA’s Bulb Recycling page for more information.

[+] Detailed guidance on CFL Cleanup and Disposal by EPA.


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  • Paul Hanley

    Hi,

    I believe the article on cleaning up CFLs unnecessarily discourages the use of efficient bulbs.

    A couple of scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a branch of the United States Department of Energy, actually calculated the level of mercury exposure when one breaks a CFL.
    Just to make sure we are on solid ground, you should know the Berkeley Lab is one of the top research institutions in the world. Eleven scientists associated with it have won the Nobel Prize, 57 are members of the National Academy of Sciences, and 13 have won the National Medal of Science, America’s highest award for lifetime achievement in science.

    The scientists—one a chemist, the other a physicist—found that, “if simple common sense is used in disposing of the broken CFL, the resulting exposure to mercury is equivalent to about 1/50th of an ounce—a single nibble—of Albacore tuna!”

    If you ate a whole six ounce serving of Albacore tuna you would take in about 48 micrograms of mercury, 700 times the exposure from a typical CFL breakage scenario.

    Even the worst case CFL breakage scenario—where people are careless about the cleanup and, say, throw the broken glass in an open trash can next to the TV before sitting down to a night of viewing—only equaled the approximate exposure from a single meal of fish.

    The scientists concluded that even the careless CFL breaker could bounce back to their pre-incident mercury levels by avoiding a single serving of tuna caserole. (You can read their report at http://www.lamprecycle.org/public/images/docs/LD+A%20August%202009.pdf).

    This is not to say we can be careless about mercury in the environment. Mercury is a toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative substance we should avoid. It accumulates in fish and other species, damaging the central nervous system and causing reproductive failure. Human exposure to mercury—primarily by eating contaminated fish—may cause neurological and developmental damage.

    Today, the largest single source of mercury is coal–fired power plants. It follows that one of the best way to reduce emissions of mercury is to limit the use of coal. And what is one of the best ways to do that: energy-efficient lighting, such as CFLs. CFLs can actually reduce mercury exposure.

    Articles such as yours may discourage people from using a product that actually reduces mercury exposure.

    Paul Hanley

    • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

      Paul, thanks for your comment. Keep in mind this is the EPA’s guidance, so take it for what it is. Might as well have the information handy if you break one.

      Also, I don’t see any reason to create a false choice between incandescent lighting and CFLs when one could go with another energy-efficient alternative.

  • http://www.charlesandhudson.com Charles & Hudson

    Once LEDs get more price competitive this will all be moot. Good info in the meantime.

  • Anonymous

    and just how hazardous is working in the factories that make these? Seems using these bulbs is like bringing in a hazardous-waste time-bomb.

    only a little toxic, (Paul’s comment) but what about synergistic and cumulative effects of the many toxins in our world.

    These bulbs should never have been marketed – and soon the old ones will be illegal to sell. Just who’s behind all this? Follow the money.

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