Broken incandescent light bulbs offer no health risks other than possible cuts from broken glass. Any light bulb containing mercury, however, requires special care if broken and this includes fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). Over time mercury can accumulate in the human body and cause an array of negative health effects. Although there is no reason to panic when a fluorescent is broken, it is wise to limit your exposure to the mercury it contains by following the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines for broken compact fluorescent bulbs.
Safe Exposure Levels
Federal guidelines only address maximum levels of chronic mercury exposure, and there is no clear consensus on the effects of short-term, low-level exposure, such as when a compact fluorescent bulb is broken. Most of what is known about the negative effects of mercury exposure is based on information from cases involving chronic low level exposure, or single high dose exposures.
Mercury in Fluorescents
Compact fluorescents have the lowest mercury levels in the fluorescent family, containing on average 4.5 mg. The long tubes typically used in offices and commercial spaces contain more, depending on the size. When a bulb is broken, some of its mercury is released into the air and you can greatly reduce your exposure by airing out the room and then cleaning up the broken fluorescent right away.
Mercury Levels Changing
Mercury is a key component of fluorescent technology, but manufacturers have continued to develop bulbs that contain increasingly less mercury and these lower mercury products are typically what is sold today. Newer energy efficient light bulbs such as LED are entirely mercury free and are worth considering, although the technology is still problematic and costly.
Avoiding Broken CFLs
Compact fluorescents are manufactured with a stronger glass than a traditional light bulb, making them more resistant to breakage, and generally safe for household use. Additionally in some products the spiral tube is hidden behind a second glass envelope, creating the appearance of a traditional light bulb while helping to protect against damage. In households with active children, avoid using compact fluorescent bulbs in table lamps or other locations where they can be knocked over.
Why Use CFLs?
Although in the future other technologies such as LED might make fluorescents obsolete, the cost of such lamps is still very high and compact fluorescent bulbs are the most realistic choice for the average consumer. Environmental agencies such as the EPA continue to advocate for the use of compact fluorescent bulbs while recommending specific measures for cleaning up and recycling broken bulbs.
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- Energy Star, Fact Sheet: CFLs and Mercury
- USEPA, What to Do if a Fluorescent or Other Mercury-Containing Light Bulb Breaks
- NY Department of Health, Understanding Mercury Exposure Levels
- Maine DEP, Maine Compact Fluorescent Lamp Breakage Study Report
- PubMed, Release of mercury from broken fluorescent bulbs