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Compact Fluorescent Lamps: Health Hazard or Environmental Benefit?

Recycling CFL mercury a small price to pay for energy, cost and health savings


Woman fitting lightbulb
Image Source/Digital Vision/Getty Images
One of the brightest strategies for everyday household energy savings is using compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) in place of standard incandescent bulbs.

Unit for unit, compact fluorescent lamps cost more than the incandescent bulbs they replace, but they’re actually much more cost-effective. Because CFLs last up to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs and use only one quarter to one third as much energy, every CFL you use will save you about $30 over the life of the bulb.

Mercury in Compact Fluorescent Lamps Argues for Recycling
The only drawback to using compact fluorescent lamps is that each bulb contains about 5 milligrams (mg) of mercury, a toxic heavy metal that can interfere with the development of children and unborn fetuses and may cause a wide range of health issues in adults, including brain, kidney and liver damage.

Because of the mercury they contain, compact fluorescent bulbs should be recycled lest they end up in landfills where they can contaminate air, soil and groundwater, potentially placing public health at risk.

While compact fluorescent lamps used in homes are not legally classified as hazardous waste and only large commercial users of fluorescent lights are required to recycle, proper disposal of CFLs is still the best option for both the environment and human health.

Recycling Options for Compact Fluorescent Lamps
Depending on the extent of your local recycling program, CFL recycling may require special handling or disposal at a hazardous waste facility. Check with your local solid waste disposal program to find out how to recycle compact fluorescent bulbs in your area.

You can also check Earth911.org or call 1-800-CLEAN-UP for an automated hotline. Online, just enter your zip code, press GO, click Household Hazardous Waste, then fluorescent light bulb disposal. The site will identify your nearest residential mercury recycling facility or mail disposal method. If you find no specific information on CFL disposal, go back and click on the link for “Mercury Containing Items.”

Follow Safe Cleanup and Disposal Methods for CFLs
If it turns out your local household hazardous waste collection site cannot accept compact fluorescent lamps for recycling, your only remaining option is to seal the CFL in a plastic bag and dispose of it with your regular trash.

If a compact fluorescent lamp breaks in your home, open nearby windows immediately to disperse any mercury vapor that may escape, carefully sweep up the glass fragments, and wipe the area with a disposable paper towel to remove any remaining fragments. Do not try to pick up glass fragments with your hands, and do not use a vacuum. Place all glass fragments in a sealed plastic bag and dispose of them with your other household trash.

Compact Fluorescent Lamps Generate Less Mercury Overall
Before ruling out CFLs because of the mercury they contain and the extra effort involved in their disposal, keep in mind that compact fluorescent lamps also prevent mercury from entering the air, which is the greatest public health risk. Mercury in the air comes primarily from burning fossil fuels such as coal, the most common fuel used to produce electricity in the United States.

Because a compact fluorescent lamp uses up to 75 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb and lasts up to 10 times longer, a power plant will emit 10 mg of mercury to produce the electricity to run an incandescent bulb compared to 2.4 mg of mercury or less to run a compact fluorescent lamp for the same length of time.

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