I broke one of those twisty lightbulbs. I read that this means my home is mercury contaminated. True?

Berkeley, CA

What kind of lightbulbs should I use? Actually I prefer full spectrum lighting.


David Bergman

Answered by David Bergman

New York, NY

David Bergman Architect

October 17, 2011

Hurry!  Evacuate the neighborhood and call a Hazmat team!

No, not really, though some of the light bulb “freedom-of-choice” ranters would have you believe so. (They’re usually the same ones who keep misleadingly referring to the energy efficiency reg’s as a ban on incandescent bulbs.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge fan of those twisty squirmy guys (I’m referring to the bulbs.), otherwise known as compact fluorescent lamps or CFLs.

And one of the reasons for my lack of fandom is that every fluorescent bulb contains a tiny but troublesome amount of mercury.

  • If the bulb doesn’t break and is properly recycled, that’s not a problem.
  • If it does, well the EPA has some safe and sane recommendations:

EPA's cleanup recommendations for a broken CFL

Before Cleanup

  • Have people and pets leave the room.
  • Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.
  • Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.
  • Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb: stiff paper or cardboard; sticky tape; damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes (for hard surfaces); and a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag.

During Cleanup

  • Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.
  • Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

After Cleanup

  • Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of properly. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
  • If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.

That may still sound kind of scary, but it’s not end of the world scary.

Choosing a better bulb

Now, as to what kind of bulb you should use, that question doesn’t lend itself to a one-size-fits-all answer. From an energy-efficiency point of view – and even from a mercury emissions point of view, provided you’re looking at the larger picture – a CFL is preferable to an incandescent bulb.

There are other considerations, however, including:

  • What kind of light fixture the bulb is going in.
  • How often the light will be on.
  • Whether you need dimming.

I’ve gone into this in a previous post, and have looked at the full spectrum issue, too. (Wouldn’t want to waste electrons by getting repetitive.) And you can, btw, get full spectrum CFLs.

Here’s an even shorter version of my advice, with a heavy dose of overgeneralization:

  • Mercury bad.
  • CFLs good.
  • LEDs better.

Tagged In: cfl

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