A couple of years ago we made the switch to compact fluorescent bulbs in all of the light fixtures in our house. Our electric company had been enthusiastically promoting compact fluorescents for months in their newsletters, including offering rebate coupons for anyone purchasing a certain brand of these bulbs. The environmentally-friendly aspect of the compact fluorescent bulbs, and the promises of how much less energy this type of bulb would use, were intriguing, and we thought the bulbs were a really good idea… then.

We were a little surprised when our bulb changeover didn’t change the amount of electrical energy we were using. We even joked that our electrical usage had actually increased just after we switched the bulbs (it had), but we still liked the idea that we were doing our part to save the environment. It didn’t take long before people who knew we had this type of bulb started telling us about news reports they had seen or read about how dangerous exposure to the mercury in these bulbs would be if one of the bulbs happened to break. For several months we dismissed all of this as just another exaggerated news story… after all, the electric company had not mentioned any concerns, and there was nothing on the bulb packaging to indicate that these bulbs needed to be handled any differently than any other bulb. Also, buying these bulbs for every light fixture in our house had been an expensive investment we didn’t want to lose. Then one day my mother told me about an especially disturbing article she had read, and in an effort to find facts to contradict that article, I started reading what the Environmental Protection Agency and state government sites had to say about the advised clean-up method for these bulbs. I did not like what I found.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection offers detailed information about cleaning up a broken compact fluorescent bulb. I think anyone who has these bulbs in their house should read these instructions, which begin with a warning never to use a vacuum or broom to clean up a broken compact fluorescent bulb.

So what is the recommended clean-up process? It involves opening windows and doors and immediately getting people and pets out of the area and staying out for at least fifteen minutes. Then some brave soul is supposed to come back into the room armed with two pieces of cardboard to scoop up the broken glass and “powder,” duct tape to pick up any smaller particles, and damp paper towel to pick up even smaller particles. All of the clean-up materials are supposed to be placed in a glass jar with a tight seal for disposal, marked as hazardous waste, and gotten out of the house to avoid further contamination. The brave soul should then wash his hands and face and clothing, and throw away any clothing or materials that came in direct contact with the contents of the broken bulb… while keeping the doors and windows open for several more hours.

The guidelines suggest that if breakage occurs on carpeting, homeowners might want to cut out that section of carpet, or if the carpet is not removed, windows should be opened the next several times the carpet is vacuumed. An additional study showed that even after the broken bulb has been cleaned up according to the recommended guidelines, visibly clean carpets and floors can still retain traces of mercury, and that no one knows what health effects these low levels might have.

The guidelines end with this statement:

“The next time you replace a lamp, consider putting a drop cloth on the floor so that any accidental breakage can be easily cleaned up. If consumers remain concerned regarding safety, they may consider not utilizing fluorescent lamps in situations where they could easily be broken. Consumers may also consider avoiding CFL usage in bedrooms or carpeted areas frequented by infants, small children, or pregnant women.”

It’s a decision everyone has to make for themselves, but we DO remain concerned… and we no longer have compact fluorescent bulbs in ANY of our light fixtures. We took them back to the special recycling center for compact fluorescent bulbs at the same home supply store we bought them from, and it feels good to no longer have something in our house that might break and create a hazardous waste situation. We expected an increase in our electrical usage when we went back to incandescent bulbs, but we have been keeping a daily record of how much electricity we have used since the first of the year, and the next day after the bulb switch, our electrical usage went down… and has stayed down the same percentage ever since. Nothing else had changed.

Figure that one out…


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Comments

EJ

I knew about the mercury but was more bothered by my inability to dispose of these bulbs when they died.
On Federal facilities these bulbs are part of hazardous waste and are picked up for hazardous disposal. Use in the home (like other hazardous materials) allows us to simply throw them out with the trash. I had figured the mercury to be so minimal it was not as hazardous.. guess I was wrong.

Trixi

Thanks for this info. we have broken one and I didn’t follow all of the recommended things. It worries me. I think I will be changing our bulbs too.

Stephanie

I have read that the first cfl bulbs were very long lasting, durable and decreased electric use in a dramatic way. Not anymore. The reason – the bulbs are a victim of ‘made in China’ syndrome. The new bulbs are cheap and poorly made resulting in less burning hours and more fragile bulbs. We have had only one light last longer than a year and that is because it is a closet light. I only hope that the idea to outlaw regular bulbs never becomes a reality.

ChristyACB

That is most disturbing! The ones I replaced are pretty much all ceiling fixtures and I haven’t put CFLs everywhere because the light isn’t as nice.

I’m thinking before I buy anymore that I’ll wait until the new No Mercury ones come out soon.

Aimee

Start stock piling your regular bulbs now. Soon it will be illegal to sell or make incadensent light bulbs.

Miss use of goverment power in my humble oopinion.

Thanks for the information, I had no idea.

Shirley

I had already read this and sort of brushed it off at the time.

So, what bulbs do we use in their place? I hate changing light bulbs so often!

RP

I don’t know about other states, but in the state of CA, many items (not just CFL’s) are considered hazardous waste and are not to be disposed of in the regular trash. This list includes: radios, cell phones, CD players, DVD players, tvs, batteries, etc.

According to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, California has adopted universal waste regulations for handling and transporting certain low-risk hazardous wastes. Universal wastes include televisions, computer monitors, computers and other e-wastes. The universal waste regulations also apply to other common wastes, such as fluorescent lamps, mercury-containing switches, and batteries.

Lynn

We do not use compact fluorescents bulbs in our house either. I shared my frustrations with a rep at a “big box” store that our cf bulbs would burn out in about 2 months time. He told me that for a cf bulb to be a savings, it needs to be left on for at least 15 minutes so the ballast can warm up; by shutting the lights off right away, I was actually shortening their life span. Who knew? Since it is our habit to keep lights off, we are back with the standard bulbs. I think using a conventional bulb for 2 minutes is no more expensive than using a cf bulb for 15 minutes. We’re definitely in the conventional bulb camp!

Jo

Thank you for this article. I had 2 of these bulbs in places that we used the light a lot. One was in the downlight section of our chandelier over the dining table! You may have saved us a terrible tragedy with our grandchildren’s health. I hate to think what damage might have been done.

One more reason not to buy anything from China!

Meadowlark

I just heard (haven’t verified) on the radio that cfl’s are also dangerous when used in a dimmer-operated environment. Even if one doesn’t “dim” it, it still only runs at 98% or so power, and it causes overheating and perhaps a fire. I’ll go check and see if it’s true, you might want to do the same. Not that they make it easy for us to find anything out.

Shirley (Choosing Voluntary Simplicity)

At the very least, I think, the packaging ought to include a prominent warning about the mercury hazard. And somewhere on the packaging there ought to be instructions for clean-up in case a bulb breaks. I can’t imagine why this isn’t already being done.

KN

I have some of these bulbs in a ceiling fan over a table in the kitchen, where accidents are definitely possible. Had I known the danger that was lurking there (my favorite cookie-cutting spot with the grandkids), I would not have used these types of bulbs. I am going to remove these and safely dispose of them.

It is frustrating to try to do something positive for our planet and to lower power consumption, only to find out that something tragic could happen.

We read the package details and thought we understood them. We also noticed that these bulbs did not appear to decrease our electricity, nor did they last longer. Thank you so much for pointing out these important facts. I am going to urge my friends and family to read your column.

Louise

I had one of my compact florescent bulbs go out after 2 years it didn’t break it just stopped working, but there was an odor, what was that, was it the mercury or why would it smell. I have all my bulbs changed to these as Walgreens had 6 for $1.00. we bought enough to change all the bulbs but now after reading all the down side of using them I think I may switch back I still have my incandecent bulbs.

Stephanie

This article made me laugh, it’s wonderful and by the end of it I was shaking my head and smiling. I’ve been there and done that.

Jeff

In fixtures taht are rarely switched off, such as porch lights, CFLs last a long time, but burn out every bit as quickly in frequently used locations. At 20 times the price of standard bulbs, CFLs are just silly. We are using LED bulbs in our lamps in our living room, and they work very well, cost about the same as the CFLs, use far less electricity (7W for LED -vs- 15W for CFL -vs- 60W for Standard) Prices on the LEDs should keep coming down as they get more popular, and the expected life span is something like 100,000 hours.

Roisin

Oh my, that’s just incredibly disturbing because where I am they are actually the only option! The old-style incandescent bulbs have been retired and are no longer for sale – there may be a bit of stock left here and there, but it’s basically over and done with and I do believe that after a certain date, any bulbs left behind will be collected and destroyed.

To tell you the truth, I was never too keen on these – a lot of the arguments for these seemed like dodgy science or half truths. For one, there was no discussion of how manufacturing and disposal of these bulbs compares to the same issues for incandescent bulbs, which at the end of the day are nothing but a bit of glass and metal. Plus, for years there was a real issue with variety on these bulbs; they were mostly in the cool, blueish tint which makes even the warmest, cosiest interior appear eerily cold and clinical, and there wasn’t nearly enough variety in terms of shapes and fittings, which was a real head-scratcher given we have an enormous variety of lamps from all kinds of eras and countries (we really like lamps for the ability to customize the lighting to fit the time of day or mood – bedrooms/home offices have at least three each in addition to the ceiling light).

And it became a lot more suspicious when the plans were announced to cease distribution of the incandescent bulbs. As my mum is fond of saying, ‘follow the money’: with measures like these, it is virtually guaranteed that someone is making a great deal of money. So even though green living IS a priority for me, I didn’t think the move was cause for the kind of celebration there was in the media at the time.

I could put up with dodgy decisions led by a desire to accommodate corporate business interests, although that makes me uncomfortable enough. But the health issues are a total deal breaker, and I’m going to do my best to find ways to deal with this as well as spread the word to see if we could perhaps bring back the incandescents even if these never go away completely. Thank you so much for explaining all this, because I hadn’t the faintest idea – just a few weeks ago one of these broke and I do believe my mum took no precautions when picking it up beyond what she would have done with an incandescent :-(

matthew

I have just removed all my CFL bulbs. I was concerned about the mercury; but also othr things. The light seemed not normal. They glowed after they where switched off. And they seem to cause problems with my electric circuits. I had one in the bathroom. When the fan came on, the light flickered, went off then back on. As if the light was drawing a lot of power, even though it says 9 watts, i dont believe it. I also found the light irritating. I cant explain the discomfort. I just could not sit in a room with those bulbs.

Anyways, as soon as got rid of them, and put LED lights, I felt so much better. The lights where brighter, instant on, and the electricity problems disappeared. I wont every buy another CFL.

Al S.

I LOATHE these bulbs. Don’t get me wrong, I do think it’s important to protect the environment, but I think that those CFL bulbs are ugly, overpriced, and ridiculously dangerous. Aesthetically, I think they’re FAR inferior to standard incandescent bulbs. CFLs throw off a more harsh, “electrical” light, while incandescents throw off “warmer” shades. Additionally, I actually didn’t know about the insane health risks associated with CFLs, and I find it ridiculous that anyone would WANT something so toxic – and fragile – in their home.

Also, what really bothers me is that it’s getting harder to find incandescent Christmas lights, because it seems that now all they have are those cold, flickery LED lights. I don’t care if they’re “environmentally friendly”, I refuse to buy them!