With all the announcements of recent advances in LED technology – first they were wearable, then printable, now the thinnest ever, to become even cheaper and energy efficient – it’s easy to forget about CFLs, a viable alternative to long-time favorite but unsustainable (and now illegal to manufacture) incandescent bulbs. In February we covered the outlawing of incandescents and suggested that shoppers purchase CFLs instead, but only briefly touched on one of the most prevalent concerns about CFLs: their mercury content.

Our blog post from February mentioned an NPR report that goes into great detail about more efficient alternatives to incandescent bulbs. Before the report came out, NPR asked Facebook users for their questions and concerns about old and new lighting technologies. The results had several common threads, one of the most popular of which criticized CFLs for the harm they do to the environment despite being frequently touted as THE green lighting alternative.

“I find it concerning that if a bulb breaks we have to evacuate the premises,” one respondent said. Another: “I really don’t like knowing breaking [a CFL bulb] turns into a hazmat situation.” And the comment, “I’ve always wondered how [CFL] bulbs that have to be disposed of as hazardous waste become the poster child for environmentally conscious lighting,” received 10 “Likes.”

Is there any truth to the alleged irony that are “environmentally conscious,” mercury-dependent CFLs – which contain a pollutant that is rendering our fish uneatable, but are still supposed to replace “harmless” incandescents?

Sealed within the glass tubing of CFLs is a very small amount of mercury – about 4 milligrams (mg). ENERGYSTAR.gov presents a lengthy Fact Sheet about CFLs and mercury. It compares the mercury content of CFLs to older thermometers, which contain “about 500 milligrams of mercury – an amount equal to the mercury in 125 CFLs.” And according to National Geographic, who published an article on their website that we referenced in our February post, “only a tiny fraction” of the 4 mg is released when a bulb breaks.

More importantly, the amount of mercury in a CFL bulb – whether the bulb breaks and some of the mercury evaporates, or it is disposed of improperly in a landfill – does not come close to the mercury emissions CFLs help avoid. More than half of the annual 103 metric tons of U.S. mercury emissions come from coal-fired electric power, according to ENERGY STAR. The Environmental Protection Agency’s website sums it up: “Using energy-saving CFLs reduces demand for electricity, which in turn reduces the amount of coal burned by power plants, which reduces emissions of mercury when the coal is burned.”

Still, any amount of mercury is nothing to sniff at (literally). Says Robert Hurt, director of the Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation, “The overall risk is low, but it’s not zero risk, and there is definitely an opportunity to do better” (article courtesy of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science). If CFL bulbs depend on their mercury content to be as efficient as they are, improvements in technology can help us reduce the amount they depend on – which, according to ENERGY STAR, has already been happening: “Thanks to technology advances…the average mercury content in CFLs has dropped at least 20 percent or more in the past several years.”

Just because, according to ENERGY STAR, “if all 272 million CFLs sold in 2009 were sent to a landfill (versus recycled, as a worst case) – they would add 0.12 metric tons, or 0.12 percent, to U.S. mercury emissions caused by humans,” we shouldn’t just throw broken and old CFLs in the trash. The same ENERGYSTAR.gov Fact Sheet offers proper handling and cleanup instructions for CFLs.

There's a fishy light fixture for you! (Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hackaday/)

There’s a fishy light fixture for you! (Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hackaday/)

To put in even clearer perspective the potential harm posed by the mercury in CFLs, let’s think about fish, like Julia Layton at howstuffworks.com. Along with the helpful tip to clean up broken CFL bulbs with a broom, and not a vacuum (as vacuums can expel mercury vapor into the air), Layton writes that “fish definitely pose a greater risk when it comes to mercury poisoning. We actually eat the mercury in the fish.”

However, just as eating fish only a couple of times a week gets you its nutritional benefits while protecting you from its mercury content, at the end of the day using CFLs, and disposing of them properly, is good for the environment.

Jacy Everett
Director of Business Development
(800) 544-4836