Compact Flourescent Bulbs and Mercury

Prompted by the example of my officemates, I went shopping for compact flourescent lightbulbs tonight for the house. I was dismayed to find that all brands I could find have a big warning label on the back saying “contains mercury: use proper disposal methods.”

Can anyone point me to an evaluation of the comparitive evils of the presence of mercury in these bulbs vs. the energy they save?


Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on November 24, 2004 - 04:07 Permalink

While I don’t know anything about the ammounts of mercury or its effect, it is probably worth noting that these bulbs last significantly longer than traditional lightbulbs (in some cases, well over 5-7 years).

Dale Sorensen's picture
Dale Sorensen on November 24, 2004 - 05:44 Permalink

You might find this US Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet helpful:…

In it you will learn that the amount of mercury in a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) is only about 4mg, compared to 500 mg for a household mercury thermometer.

The publication also compares the amount of mercury emissions between CFLs and incandescent bulbs when factoring in electricity usage: “The highest source of mercury in our air comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal, the most common fuel used in the U.S. to produce electricity. A CFL uses 75% less energy than an incandescent light bulb and lasts at least 6 times longer. A power plant will emit 10mg of mercury to produce the electricity to run an incandescent bulb compared to only 2.4mg of mercury to run a CFL for the same time.” Adding 4 mg to the CFL total for the amount inside the bulb still brings the overall environmental impact to less than that of an incandescent.

Of course, if you are getting your power from a renewable energy source like wind or, in my case, solar power, then perhaps a case could be made for using incandescents over CFLs; although in our house, that larger power consumption would have too significant an impact on our solar power system. And as Steven points out, the amount of garbage generated by CFLs is quite a bit less because they last so much longer. We have been in our house for 4 years and have yet to change a light bulb. (hmmm, there might be a joke in that…)

Lanc's picture
Lanc on November 24, 2004 - 10:38 Permalink

I wouldn,t worry to much abut the mercury in new florescent light bulbs.As long as they aren,t broken open and the mercury is allowed to evaporate. Even then there is so little I doubt you would get sick on it!
If I remember large doses of mercury cause Minamata disease.
There probably is more mercury in the computer screen that you are using than the bulb.

oliver's picture
oliver on November 24, 2004 - 12:08 Permalink

Man, Dale, as Cheech and Chong might say, that was some real shit. I was so sure there was no answer I didn’t even think to go look.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 24, 2004 - 15:54 Permalink

That’s useful information, Dale. What I’m looking for now is some assurance that the presence of mercury in the bulbs doesn’t mean that there is a mercury pollution problem in China (where all of the bulbs we looked at are manufactured).

al o'neill's picture
al o'neill on November 24, 2004 - 16:24 Permalink

I’m sure there is a mercury pollution problem in China, but again probably from burning fossil fuels more than anything else.

oliver's picture
oliver on November 26, 2004 - 16:06 Permalink

On reflection, the stats from the EPA that I allowed to comfort me are like the pernicious reassurances that went with the Bush administration’s rollback of the requirement for smokestack upgrading. Likewise, that reassurance relied on averaging, and ignores we’re wondering about point sources that some people live near. e.g. What if your thermometer gets squooshed beneath the sofa leg beside the heating vent and you don’t notice for a year. That’s liable to be a lot worse for you than the gazillion times as much mercury the coal stacks send up in a year—assuming they’re clustered far away and their pollution dissolves in the atmosphere before it reaches you, which I suspect is true under most wind conditions for PEI. That said, I think we’re talking point release of bulb mercury slowly and into your public landfill. I doubt though that the bulbs leak mercury or that they fail catastrophically at a rate of even one in a million or that it’s easy to liberate their mercury by accident—or perhaps even by trying. Until we get tort reform, bulb makers like GE don’t want the kind of lawsuits they would get from leaching mercury into every home in America. Hudson river, OK, because that’s up to eviscerated federal agencies to prosecute. But not our homes.

oliver's picture
oliver on November 26, 2004 - 16:09 Permalink

I was talking about leaking and failing in the home. They’ll leak in the landfill for sure, sooner or later.

oliver's picture
oliver on November 26, 2004 - 16:16 Permalink

More pertinent than thermometers to the present audience is conventional CRT computer monitors and TV sets. Those are chock full of mercury, and in California at least there are programs to collect and/or recycle them so they don’t all get dumped in the ordinary landfill.

Russ Tanner's picture
Russ Tanner on November 16, 2005 - 04:12 Permalink

How about the mercury vapor coming off of amalgam (“silver”) fillings 24/7. If we’re concerned about human exposure to mercury, this is the single leading source of human exposure based on the studies I’ve read.

ScottNS's picture
ScottNS on January 5, 2006 - 23:11 Permalink

I also noticed something on the label about recycling the lightbulb. I imagine that recovers most of the mercury?

I think your analysis that more mercury is released from using a incandescent bulb than a flourescent bulb is key.

Also, I disagree with Russ’s comment about amalgam being the leading source of human exposure to mercury. While mercury vapor is extremely toxic, the amount escaping from amalgam is miniscule. Most human mercury exposure comes from methyl mercury. Mercury released from burning fuels ends up in the ocean and lakes. This mercury gets absorbed by bacteria and plankton and converted in to methyl mercury. As fish eat the plankton, they also consume and retain methyl-mercury. Fish that eat these fish have even higher methyl-mercury content. When humans eat these large fish they too absorb the methyl-mercury. This is probably the leading source of mercury exposure, NOT amalgam fillings.…

A list of mercury containing OTC drugs approved by the FDA:…

Russ Tanner's picture
Russ Tanner on January 27, 2006 - 09:30 Permalink

I would mention to all the following comment in response to ScottNS: I noticed several links to government agencies. Considering the massive amount of study I’ve done on this subject, I need to make you aware that information on government websites related to this subject (mercury) is very often distorted, completely misleading and even outright lies. The ADA holds 2 patents on amalgam manufacture and the pharmaceutical companies thoroughly understand that they make huge sums “treating” diseases that are actually caused by mercury (FOIA documents have been recently published; See links below). Also, read U.N. agenda 21. I could write a book on this but in short, amalgams ARE in fact the leading cause of mercury exposure to humans, not to discount the effects of coal-burning power plants, as they are #2 and something needs to be done about them as well. The corruption and lies surrounding this issue are hard to fathom for most people who have not studied it. Read the studies yourself. I have. Here are some links for your reference:……………

Barbara Alward's picture
Barbara Alward on March 3, 2006 - 22:36 Permalink

Interesting info about the mercury in the CFL’s. In my job as an energy specialist (ha ha) I give 5 CFL’s to income qualifying individuals. As of July 2005 I just learned that these bulbs are not to go to the landfill. I am required to take the boxes, the boxes the bulbs come in, the very same boxes that have the disposal warning and info, I am to take them with me! Have there been any studies regarding the handling of said bulbs on a daily basis ie., gloves recommended? I think I need to have a word with PG & E about taking the boxes away. What a nutty free for all this life has turned into!

raye's picture
raye on April 23, 2007 - 03:33 Permalink

I have been reading about the mercury debate here. I too am concerned. Recently in my town I received a notice in the mail that a local store will be available to take my used flourescent bulbs of all sizes FOR A FEE. It costs $.50 to $.62 per bulb. So now I have to store the bulbs in such a manner so they don’t break and then get them to the recycling location and then pay for them to take them! If a bulb breaks in my home it can be toxic to me or my kids or my pets. The mercury can evaporate into the air in your home. Also there is NO SAFE amount of mercury for the human body. They are now changing the immunizations that children got because of parental protests and the link to autism that some claim is untrue. I work with autistic kids and I KNOW what I have heard from some parents! You can’t call all those parents liars!

So until they make a better substitute for the old bulb I’m sticking by it. It is true that the fossil fuels do also produce mercury so I’ll just cut down on my overall energy consumption. Many have done things to add natural light to the house or even businesses like Walmart. They have added skylights in their buildings. We need to come up with better alternatives not more poor choices. I applaud the person who is able to use alternative methods to conserve energy that are safe…wind and sun power!

Genie Donahue's picture
Genie Donahue on December 18, 2007 - 16:49 Permalink

I have a question: If a 40 watt bulb uses forty watts, isn’t 40 watts of usage 40 watts of useage no matter what type of bulb? Sorry, I recycle and turn off my lights and try to save water-I am not changing lightbulbs-hate the light from them anyway. I agree with Raye-lets come up with better alternatives. By the way how much energy does it take to produce the flourescent bulbs compared to the incandescent bulbs? I’ll stick with Edison!

Isaac Grant's picture
Isaac Grant on December 18, 2007 - 19:55 Permalink


Not sure about the production costs part of your answer — the use of mercury that Peter points out is the big drawback that I know about.

That said, you are right, 40w is 40w, no matter the bulb type. The key is CFL require only 11w to product the equivalent amount of light as a 40w incandescent bulb — hence the energy and money savings.

That said, I do agree, their light isn’t as nice.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on June 13, 2013 - 20:59 Permalink

I’ve lately read the mercury is very easily mobilized and absorbed if you simply break one of these things and that the acute exposures that can result are significant. For disposal it’s recommend not to handle the pieces without disposable gloves, not to vacuum them up, and get them quickly into an air-tight bag.…