Fluorescent light bulbs and mercury in a home

  • Published
  • By Rudy Verzuh
  • 341st Civil Engineer Squadron
Fluorescent light bulbs use less energy than conventional light bulbs and can provide economic and environmental benefits. Users of fluorescent bulbs, including compact fluorescent light bulbs, should be aware that fluorescent bulbs contain very small quantities of mercury and have unique procedures for cleanup and disposal.

Fluorescent light bulbs produce light differently than incandescent bulbs. In an incandescent bulb, electric current runs through a wire filament and heats the filament until it starts to glow. In a fluorescent light bulb, an electric current is driven through a tube containing argon and a small amount of mercury vapor. This generates invisible ultraviolet light that excites a fluorescent coating, called phosphor, on the inside of the tube, which then emits visible light.

Fluorescent light bulbs use less energy and typically last longer than incandescent light bulbs. Compact fluorescent light bulbs contain 0 -10 mg of mercury according to the National Electrical Manufactures Association. By comparison, an older-style mercury thermometer contains 500 mg of mercury.

Even though fluorescent lights contain mercury, they reduce mercury emissions to the environment because of their significant energy savings, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Using energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs reduces demand for electricity, which reduces the amount of coal burned by power plants. This then reduces emissions of mercury from burning coal. According to the 2005 National Emissions Inventory, burning coal at power plants results in about half of all mercury emissions from man-made sources in the U.S.

The small amount of mercury within a Fluorescent light bulb is sealed within the glass tubing and is not released into the environment unless the bulb is broken. When a fluorescent bulb breaks in your home, the EPA recommends the following steps to reduce exposure to mercury vapor:

Before cleanup:
· Have people and pets leave the room.
· Air out the room for 5 to 10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.
· Shut off the central forced air heating/air‐conditioning system.
· Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb: stiff paper or cardboard, sticky tape, damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes

During cleanup:
· Do not vacuum. Vacuuming is not recommended unless broken glass remains after all other cleanup steps have been taken. Vacuuming could spread mercury‐containing powder or mercury vapor.
· Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.
· Place cleanup materials in a sealable container like a plastic bag or glass jar.

After cleanup:
· Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials in an outdoor trash container. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
· If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.