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Are There Dangers in Exposure to Mercury in Light Bulbs?

written by: ciel s cantoria • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 10/17/2010

Are there dangers in exposure to mercury in light bulbs? The answer to this is a resounding, “YES”. Even the EPA confirms that while all light bulbs contain mercury, the recent scare about these dangers should not single-out CFLs, since they are also present in incandescent bulbs.

Why Do Government Authorities and Environmentalists Recommend CFL Bulbs?

·         The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the environmentalists and almost everyone including this site have promoted the use of the Compact Fluorescent Lamp or CFL bulbs, as the most economical alternative to incandescent lighting. The Energy efficiency of CFLs is one hundred percent true and certified by the EPA’s Energy Star department. However, the dangers from mercury exposure in CFLs have suddenly appeared in the spotlight.


·         Recent incidences of accidental breakages of CFL bulbs, have sent numerous households all across the US in a state of near-panic when they learned that CFLs are capable of contaminating a whole room with toxic mercury emissions. The scare was centered mainly around the use of the CFL and that these bulbs present potential dangers from mercury exposure. Light bulbs that accidentally break are health hazards because mercury is known as one of the leading hazardous substances in our environment today.

If this is the case, why was CFL recommended in the first place?

·         CFLS are more energy efficient and contain only 1.8 mg of mercury compared to the mercury level of 2.8 mg in incandescent bulbs.

·         CFLs consume only 13 watts as opposed to the average 60 watts for incandescent bulbs.

·         Both CFLs and incandescent bulbs have 8000 hours of use but CFLS use only 104 kWh while incandescent lighting consume as much as 480 kWh.

·         On a national average, mercury emissions are the same for both CFL and incandescent bulbs at 0.012 mg per kWh, but mercury emissions from electricity use are at different levels: 1.2 mg for CFL while it’s 5.8 for incandescent bulbs.

·         However, the most notable of all is the landfill contamination by which each type of bulb is capable. It is zero for incandescent bulbs while CFL is capable of 0.6 mg contamination.


·         All bulbs, whether incandescent or CFL, contain mercury, where the first contains mercury levels at several notches higher than the CFL. Exposure to mercury is dangerous because the toxic emissions can enter the human body through inhalation and skin absorption and cause some form of neurological disorder. Depending on the amount of exposure, the effects of mercury in the body can be anything from muscular spasms, seizures, hallucinations or delirium.

However, readers should note that incandescent bulbs use up 5.8 mg of mercury, which is equivalent to its total mercury content of 5.8; hence, once this type of bulb is out- of-service, there is zero possibility of contamination as landfill discards.

Simply stated, consumers can just throw it away; but then, consumers should also consider the possibility of an unused incandescent bulb, accidentally breaking; it means they are also capable of contaminating a room at higher levels than the CFL.

We are therefore drawn to an understanding that all bulbs should be handled properly and carefully, although, extra diligence should be exercised in disposing of CFLs because 0.6 mg of its original 1.8 mg content remains intact inside the bulb. This much can still contaminate the atmosphere should the bulbs break while still being transported or left lying in open landfills.

The baseline is, installing either CFL or incandescent bulbs require careful handling because both types of light bulbs present dangers of mercury exposure. Accidents do happen and everyone should exercise due care whether it’s a CFL or an incandescent bulb.

·         What to Do in Case of Bulb Breakage and How to Dispose CFL Bulbs?

·         The point by point comparisons will show that CFLs still have its advantages; the only problem left to contend with is their manner of disposal once they form part of the consumers’ trash.

Consumers are therefore advised to observe the disposal and clean-up guides furnished by the EPA’s Energy Star, under the publication entitled : Clean-Up and Disposal Guidelines.

For information on where to find the CFL recyclers nearest your location, visit the EPA’s webpage for “Mercury-Containing Light Bulb (Lamp) Collection and Recycling Programs Where You Live” or use Earth911’s online tool to find one.


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