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How to Safely Clean Up a Broken CFL Lightbulb

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How to Safely Clean Up a Broken CFL Lightbulb

Yesterday, as I was anxiously awaiting to find out if my car passed inspection, I heard two women discussing what to do when you break a compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL). While the benefits of these new bulbs are many, there is actually some mercury in the bulb, and as such, a broken bulb needs to be handled with care.

In the 2012 Farmers’ Almanac, we offer the following advice on how to safely clean up a broken CFL:

How much mercury? On average, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s web site, CFLs contain about “four milligrams of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. By comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury–an amount equal to the mercury in over 100 CFLs.” The manufacturers of these new energy-efficient light bulbs are working on reducing this amount even more. The lights do not release any mercury when they are being used and are intact, only when broken.

So why use them? The amount of mercury that can be released into the environment when these CFLs break or are improperly disposed of is so minimal compared to the amount of mercury that does not get released into the environment due to the lower demand for electricity. Most electricity comes from coal burning power plants, which release a great amount of mercury into the atmosphere.

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Proper CFL Cleanup from the EPA:
1. Before cleanup:

  • Have people and pets leave the room.
  • Air out the room for 5—10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.
  • Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.
  • Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb.

2. During cleanup:

  • Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.
  • Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

3.  After cleanup:

  • Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of properly.
  • Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
  • For several hours, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the HVAC system shut off.

Disposal of CFLs
The EPA recommends recycling CFLs rather than throwing in the trash. Many states and local agencies have collection agencies where you can easily recycle them. For more information check out this site. Many Home Depots in both the U.S. and Canada also take old CFLs for recycling.

I hope one day soon we have an energy-friendly light bulb that’s more earth-friendly, but in the meantime, it seems these light bulbs do offer some positive benefits, but caution should be taken if you happen to break one. (Oh and yes, my car passed. I’m good for 2 more years.)

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1 Amy { 09.05.15 at 3:24 pm }


2 T.davis { 08.03.13 at 9:22 am }

One broke here and my roomate just left it and refused to wash his hands or anything when he finally picked it up. We have kids in the house. I freaked out. I took as many precautions as I could to clean it and air out while he sat on the couch and never even washed hands. How dangerous is one of these bulbs and are we ok as long as took care of the kids and pets. The idiot roommates is still on the couch 12 hours later in the same clothes.

3 Brad Buscher { 03.02.12 at 10:09 am }

It is important for consumers to realize that CFLs and fluorescent bulbs require special handling and disposal, due to their mercury content. Like all mercury-containing fluorescent lights, CFLs should be properly stored, transported and recycled to prevent these fragile bulbs from breaking and emitting hazardous mercury vapor. They cannot be thrown away in the trash, but should be taken to a recycling center or disposed of by using a proven recycling box. However, taking them to a recycling center may not always be the most efficient solution. Consumers can use a recycling box to ship bulbs instead. If consumers choose this option, it is important to select a packaging configuration that effectively contains mercury vapor. A recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota tested the effectiveness of various packages in containing mercury vapor emitted from broken fluorescent lamps. The study found that many packages do not sufficiently contain mercury vapor, such as single-layer cardboard boxes (representing the original manufacturer’s box or container) as well as single layer boxes with a sealed plastic bag. Just one configuration–consisting of a zip-closure plastic-foil laminate bag layered between two cardboard boxes–minimized exposure levels below acceptable occupational limits, as defined by state and federal regulations and guidelines. Find out more about this proven packaging method at: If a bulb breaks, consumers can learn more about clean-up procedures here:

4 Karen Crumley { 02.23.12 at 12:06 pm }

The danger of the mercury is that it becomes a gas at below room temperature and the gas is deadly. Actual contact is not the problem. If a bulb is broken, the mercury quickly becomes a gas so there should be no residual to worry about. I know this because my daughter broke a thermometer one year, played with it (cleaning her cheap kid jewelry), then came to show me how great her things looked. They did look great, but I freaked out when she told me how she did it. I called the poison control and they said, “Is she dead yet?” I said, “no”. “Then she’ll be okay. It’s the gas that is deadly.” Who knew?

5 Michelle { 02.23.12 at 9:33 am }

Always use a damp disposable rag to clean up all dust and small slivers of glass. Use disposable dish gloves as well. We usually place ours in a plastic freezer bag. You have to call your local garbage refuse to see when and wait times you can throw them away in the “biohazard” bins they have ect. When they break they release toxic not breathe..when one breaks remove all people as quickly as possible and like in the above information turn off all fans and furnace in the house! Open a door or window in the room.

I hate it when one busts…I have been known to rearrange furniture afterwards so my kids wont crawl around on the floor where one has broken..lickin their hands playing with toys ect..freaks me out. It’s all out Hazmat team when it happens here! I’d gladly spend the extra 16 dollars a year and pocket the 3 dollar price difference for 4 bulbs compared to one CFL. To me it’s all the same. My kids and home are safer, and I spend just about as much either way. Give us a safe alternative, than Leukemia cancer causing light bulbs to save a buck on our energy cost!

6 sherri { 02.23.12 at 9:25 am }

While I was at work my daughter broke one of these light bulbs, she cleaned it up just like another regular bulb. Is there symptoms, or any thing else I should be looking out for? What danger for her skin or respiratory should I be on the look out for?

7 Jaime McLeod { 02.24.12 at 10:10 am }

Any store that sells them is supposed to take them back. If they won’t, they should be able to tell you what other stores in the area will. Some municipalities have recycling centers for them.

8 Brent Giles { 02.23.12 at 9:14 am }

I knew floresent lights could be harmful due to the mercury. The issue of disposing of them properly? I have never seen any type of recycling receptical or a sign at any store saying they will take them back once they stop working. It makes me wonder if the manufacturers or the store who sell them really care about what happens to them after they stop working. You mention putting them in the trash container. You do know the trash With Bulb inside will just end up in a land fill somewhere so everything can be crushed by a bulldozer and buried and the mercury can leak out into the earth, Right? Do you know of any stores or recycling centers that will actually take the bulbs so they don’t end up in a land fill?

9 Jaime McLeod { 02.23.12 at 8:56 am }

If the bulb is still in tact when it stops functioning, you’re supposed to take it back to where you bought it to turn it in. If you read the packaging, it will say so.

10 Sharon { 02.23.12 at 8:49 am }

I didn’t know this either. TERRIBLE! who would know ?-it is a light bulb … they should include a “DISPOSABLE” container in the new bulb packaging to properly dispose of old bulbs. I can only imagine what the landfills have in them. That’s crazy

11 Gina Smith { 02.22.12 at 9:47 am }

Wow, I didn’t know this. Very interesting. I shared with people on our business webpage. Always good to avoid contaminants of all types! Keep up the blog. Enjoying it!

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