Cleaning Up & Recycling Compact Fluorescent Bulbs (CFLs)
(POR) Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) contain mercury, which is a serious health hazard to babies and children (more below). However, they are only at risk of mercury exposure and poisoning if a bulb breaks and you don’t follow a simple set of instructions to clean it up.
DO NOT THROW BULBS IN THE TRASH: Finding a recycling center or collections station for products like CFLs can be very difficult in Brazil, especially in rural areas. CFLs are often thrown away with the rest of the garbage as a result. However, if the bulb breaks in a garbage bag, it can spread mercury gas and dust just as easily. Even a closed plastic bag leaks mercury vapor.
Do The Following With Unbroken Bulbs: Keep the packaging that the bulbs were sold with so that you can use them later to hold old/used bulbs. Then put all of these used-up bulbs into a box together. The box should then be placed somewhere inaccessible away from children.
CLEANING UP BROKEN BULBS: (Hard surfaces like wood or tile floors)
- Open several windows immediately, and turn off any forced-air heating or air conditioning units. When a CFL breaks, some of its mercury turns immediately into a gas/vapor and escapes. You don’t want to expose mercury gas to your ventilation/heating/cooling systems. So turn them off and open the windows. If you use a fan to push contaminated air out of the house, don’t point it at the debris. This will only act to blow the powder and tiny pieces everywhere, which will make an even bigger mess.
- Leave the room for about 2-hours to allow the gas to dissipate from the area.
- The remaining mercury is attached to the phosphor powder, broken glass and metal bulb housing. Do not vacuum or sweep up the pieces, which can just act to spread the mercury around and into your vacuum cleaner or broom. Do not touch these pieces with your hands. If you have disposable gloves, put them on. Then scoop up the glass fragments and powder with pieces of hard paper or cardboard. Dump them into a wide-mouthed, screw-top container like a glass mason jar.
- Then use sticky tape to pick up the remaining glass fragments and powder. Then wipe the area clean with several damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Cotton balls are useful for dabbing up visible mercury or powder as well.
- Put all of the cleaning materials (disposable gloves, tape, paper/cardboard, paper towels, wet wipes, cotton balls, etc.) into the glass jar as well and then screw down the lid tightly.
- Wash your hands after cleaning up.
- Once all of these steps are complete you can use a vacuum cleaner on the area. But you must dispose of the vacuum bag in a sealed plastic bag directly afterward. And for the next few times that you vacuum, turn off any forced-air heating or air conditioning and open a window before doing so.
- Place all containers and bags with broken CFL debris into an outdoor area until they can be disposed.
CLEANING UP BROKEN BULBS: (Sofas, Chairs, Throw Rugs, Quilts, Blankets or Clothing)
If a bulb has been broken on a valuable item like a sofa or heirloom rug or quilt, you may be able to save it by doing the following. But don’t forget to allow time for the mercury gas/vapor to dissipate from the room before starting, and to put on a pair of disposable gloves to protect your hands from contamination.
- Scoop up the glass fragments and powder with pieces of hard paper or cardboard. Put them into a wide-mouthed, screw-top container like a glass mason jar.
- Then use sticky tape to pick up the remaining glass fragments or powder. Cotton balls are useful for dabbing up visible mercury or powder as well. Then wipe the area clean with several damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes.
- Put all of the cleaning materials (disposable gloves, tape, paper/cardboard, cotton balls, paper towels, wet wipes, etc.) into the glass jar as well and then screw down the lid tightly.
- Remove the contaminated item (sofa, chair, clothing, etc.) from the home and store in an unoccupied, warm, ventilated, open area for several months to allow the mercury to vaporize. Do not put the item in a closed area or garage.
- Hire an environmental laboratory to test the item to see whether all of the mercury has vaporized.
CLEANING UP BROKEN BULBS: (Carpet)
When possible, it’s best to cut out the contaminated area of carpet and pad and remove it. Don’t forget to allow time for the mercury gas/vapor to dissipate from the room before starting, and to put on a pair of disposable gloves to protect your hands from contamination. If that isn’t an option, follow the instructions for cleaning bulb debris from sofas, chairs, etc. as stated below.
- Cut out the contaminated area of carpet and the pad beneath it and then fold them in half carefully so that the bulb waste (powder, glass, etc) is trapped inside.
- Place carpet and pad segment and all items used for cleanup in a plastic bag.
- Place the bag into a second plastic bag and seal the outer bag with tape.
- Label the outer bag with “MercuryWaste – Hazardous.”
CFLs, MERCURY & CHILDREN’S HEALTH: Mercury is a dangerous substance, which can damage the nervous system, brain and other organs at even tiny doses. Young children and fetuses are at the greatest risk since their developing brains absorb the mercury easily and don’t readily flush it out. During certain stages of development, neurotoxins like mercury can alter brain development, resulting in problems ranging from memory impairment to mental retardation.
Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) contain an average of 4 milligrams (mg) of mercury. It is an essential part of CFLs and allows the bulb to be an efficient light source. No mercury is released when the bulbs are intact (not broken) or in use. Robert Hurt, director of the Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation, broke a series of new and used CFLs to measure the release of mercury vapor into the air. In the hour immediately after each breakage, the team recorded mercury gas concentrations near the bulb shards between 200–800 μg/m3. For comparison, the average 8-hour occupational exposure limit allowed by the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration is 100 μg/m3. Within 4 days a new 13-W CFL released about 30% of its mercury, with the remainder appearing to remain trapped in the bulb debris; picking up the glass shards after breakage reduced mercury release by 67%. Used bulbs followed similar patterns but with lower rates.
The study, which was funded by the US NIEHS Superfund Basic Research Program, was reported in the August 2008 issue of Environmental Science & Technology.
“The amount of mercury gas coming off of broken CFLs is over a milligram over a few days. If you put that milligram into a poorly ventilated room, the concentration can be over the recommended limit for children [of 0.2 μg/m3],” says Mr. Hurt.