Are CFLs Dangerous?

Are CFL light bulbs dangerous?In 2007, congress passed a new energy law that calls for incandescent bulbs to be phased out starting in 2012, and completely eliminated by 2014. Some people cheered congress’s move as a progressive, environmentally friendly decision.

However, as a rule of thumb, many people don’t like change. When that change is initiated by the government, they like it even less. Whenever a new change or law comes down the pipe, it’s a virtual guarantee that someone out there will loudly protest, citing some major problem with the new change that had been mysteriously overlooked. What “major problem” do people find with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs)? Well, didn’t you know? CFLs are dangerous – even poisonous.

Why the Complainers Have a Point

The people who claim that CFLs are dangerous do have a point – to a certain extent. All fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury. CFLs, designed for in-home use, contain mercury, and commercial fluorescent light bulbs – the long tubes you see in retail stores and offices everywhere – also contain mercury. Those commercial-style fluorescent light bulbs have been used for decades, and they contain more mercury than the smaller CFLs. Therefore, if people complaining about the death of incandescents are really so concerned, why should they not also lobby to completely remove fluorescent tubes from their local public schools?

As long as the bulb isn’t broken, the mercury can’t harm anyone. However, if you drop and break a fluorescent light bulb, you do need to be careful.

When a Bulb Breaks

A compact fluorescent light bulb contains only about 5 milligrams of mercury, which is about the amount of mercury that would fit on the head of a pin. On the other hand, 5 milligrams is enough mercury that it can contaminate 6,000 gallons of water (Source: In other words, if you break a bulb in your home, be very cautious when you clean it up. Don’t use a vacuum cleaner, because the mercury will remain indefinitely inside the machine and spread the mercury to other parts of the house. Instead, try to scoop up all the pieces without directly touching them.

What you don’t need to do is what one mom in Maine did in 2007. After breaking a bulb in her daughter’s room, she called Home Depot to find out what she should do. Home Depot recommended she call an environmental hazard company, which she did. They wanted to charge her $2,000 to clean up the broken bulb. Since her home insurance wouldn’t pay for it and she didn’t have the money, she simply closed the room off, sealing it with plastic.

Later, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection did their own inspection. They found that even the carpet where the bulb had broken contained only 34 nanograms per square inch of mercury – well below the 300 nanograms per square inch that marks the beginning of a mercury poisoning hazard. (Source)

When a bulb burns out, don’t throw it in the garbage. You can recycle bulbs at your local Home Depot, Ikea, certain other retail stores, or mail it to designated recycling centers, depending upon your state. Recycling the bulbs means that the mercury will be disposed or re-used safely.

Why the Complainers are Ultimately Wrong

Here’s the thing: Yes, CFLs and other fluorescent bulbs contain mercury. Yes, that mercury can seep into our environment if broken bulbs aren’t properly handled. But – and it’s a big but – incandescent bulbs are still responsible for the release of far more mercury into the environment.

How could this be? Incandescent bulbs don’t contain mercury, do they?

No, incandescent bulbs do not contain mercury. An incandescent bulb uses a heated filament to produce light; a fluorescent uses gas and mercury to produce light. However, roughly half of the electricity in the United States is produced by coal-burning power plants. These power plants dump a huge amount of mercury into the atmosphere – in 2006 alone, coal-burning plants emitted 50.7 tons of mercury into the air. That’s the equivalent of nine billion broken CFLs.

Because incandescent bulbs are less efficient than CFLs, a plant will typically emit 13.16 mg of mercury to power a regular 75-watt bulb for an hour. To power a comparable 20-watt CFL, only 3.51 mg of mercury is emitted (Source: Popular Mechanics).

Conclusion: Al Gore Still has it Right

Like it or not, the figures cited above conclusively lay to rest the argument that CFLs are more dangerous for humans and the environment than incandescents. Even if you hate to admit it, Al Gore and his Inconvenient Truth had it right all along. Despite what the naysayers claim, congress made the right decision in phasing out incandescent light bulbs.

Photo by mamuso