CFLs, those curly new bulbs, contain mercury. Be careful if they break.
CFL light bulbs — the spiral bulbs popping up everywhere these days — contain mercury, posing a potential hazard if they break and requiring recycling when you throw them out.
A majority of today’s homes use CFLs. Unlike the old incandescent lightbulbs, CFLs light up when a combination of three phosphors are exposed to ultraviolet light from mercury atoms. They efficiently use energy and offer long-term savings. On average, a user will save $36 per bulb in net costs (purchase plus electricity costs). That’s because a CFL is guaranteed to last 8,000 hours versus the 500-2,000 an incandescent light bulb generally runs. This makes CFLs beneficial to the environment.
CFLs and Mercury
Many people are unaware that CFLs contain mercury. The amount is relatively small. A CFL only contains 4 or 5 milligrams of mercury, whereas a typical mercury thermometer contains nearly 500 milligrams.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends cleaning up a broken CFL with care. (See sidebar.)
“The amount of mercury in a CFL is about as much as would fit on the tip of a ball point pen, or even less,” says Jennifer Dolin, manager of sustainability and environmental affairs for Sylvania. “Sylvania has reduced the amount of mercury by close to 92%, with our MicroMini using just 1.5 mg. “
CFLs actually reduce the amount of mercury released into the environment because they cut down on electricity generated by coal-burning power plants, which emit mercury. However, CFLs must be recycled or disposed of in a toxic waste depot. If they aren’t, the poisonous mercury they contain will build up in landfills.
In addition to properly disposing of their mercury, recycling reuses some of the materials used in the CFLs, including metal and glass. Several local retailers, including Home Depot, Ikea and Lowes, provide CFL recycling bins. So do some counties, municipalities, local retailers and waste agencies. Mail-in disposal is also available.
The Next Generation Lightbulb?
There’s an even newer, more energy-efficient alternative to CFLs — LED, or light-emitting diode bulbs. However, a single LED bulb costs between $30 and $40, compared to a $4 CFL. An LED should last 10 times as long as CFL on average, and creates less heat, which has the potential to reduce cooling costs in warm months. LEDs do not contain mercury. This technology is changing rapidly, and could overtake CFLs in the years ahead.
Kristen Gillette is a MetroKids intern and student at Temple University.