Let's put mercury and CFLs in perspective

I'm a fan of CFLs, but I can understand how the small amount of mercury in them can worry some.  If you're worried about the tiny bit of mercury in CFLs, I can't tell you one way or another how to decide for your home, all I can do is give you the facts that are available, and let you make your own decision.  What I can do though is call out those who (whether they know it or not) try to mislead others with fears about mercury.

There are three important things to keep in perspective when looking at mercury and CFLs.  I covered the first 2 in our post written over two years ago titled Mercury and CFL recycling:

1: The amount of mercury in CFL bulbs is a very small amount.  From our earlier post:

The biggest drawback to these light bulbs is the small amount of mercury contained in them.  As stated in this handy factsheet created by Energy Star, the average CFL contains 4 milligrams of mercury.  I know you’re scratching your head trying to visualize 4 mg.  Remember the old thermometers you had to stick under your tongue when the “hand to the forehead” wasn’t enough.  That contained 500 mg (125 CFLs) of Mercury! That’s not saying the Mercury in CFL’s doesn’t matter, it just means that we have to be reasonable with objections.

2: Many places now recycle CFLs for you!  Use this handy recycle station finder from Earth 911 to find a place to recycle your CFLs.

I hit on the number 3 thing to keep in perspective recently when we received a comment on our Best Lighting Cost Comparison post from Jackson, who is ill-informed on mercury emissions and the environment, and I didn't appreciate his smug attitude. His comment:

"Are we all so caught up in feeling good about being “Green” that we completely negate the future feelings of what it will be like to pay more for drinking water than we do for gasoline? That’s right everyone, Mercury is a poison. Perhaps Edison was right in the first place? CFL’s are what happen when you allow government to run your lives. Good luck with all your “Feelings” of saving the planet. Such small thinkers, tisk tisk. I am burning all incan’s and have enough stashed away to last me a lifetime. One thing for certain I will be greener than all of you CFL lovers."

And here was my reply:

"Hey Jackson….do tell me what part of the country you live in? Unless it’s the Northwest, I’m guessing the majority of your electricity comes from coal. From this link from Popular Mechanics comparing Mercury emitted from incandescent vs. CFLs:

About 50 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. is generated by coal-fired power plants. When coal burns to produce electricity, mercury naturally contained in the coal releases into the air. In 2006, coal-fired power plants produced 1,971 billion kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity, emitting 50.7 tons of mercury into the air—the equivalent amount of mercury contained in more than 9 billion CFLs (the bulbs emit zero mercury when in use or being handled).

Approximately 0.0234 mg of mercury—plus carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide—releases into the air per 1 kwh of electricity that a coal-fired power plant generates. Over the 7500-hour average range of one CFL, then, a plant will emit 13.16 mg of mercury to sustain a 75-watt incandescent bulb but only 3.51 mg of mercury to sustain a 20-watt CFL (the lightning equivalent of a 75-watt traditional bulb). Even if the mercury contained in a CFL was directly released into the atmosphere, an incandescent would still contribute 4.65 more milligrams of mercury into the environment over its lifetime.

3: Coal burned to produce electricity to power incandescents emits more mercury than CFLs would!

Of course this mercury is spread out in our environment, and not right in your home, but on a national policy perspective, I would encourage everyone to use CFLs so our collective environment (and thus the land we live on and the food we eat) is less contaminated.  Now, if I had a small child at home, I would still use CFLs, I would just be ever vigilant to ensure the CFLs didn't break in my home.  If one did break, I would follow these steps to clean up a broken CFL properly.

I just wonder if all of these people concerned with mercury in CFLs refused to put a thermometer in their mouth when they were little?  Remember, an old mercury thermometer had 125 times more mercury than a CFL!!!  And you put it in your mouth!!!  Where was all the outrage then?

Speaking of putting mercury in your mouth, this paper compares mercury exposure from a broken CFL to the amount of mercury you're exposed to eating fish!  The results:

...if simple common sense is used in disposing of the broken CFL, the resulting exposure to mercury is equivalent to about 1/50th of an ounce—a single nibble—of Albacore tuna!

Make your own choices, but make sure you have the facts and you put everything in perspective!


This is a great fact sheet from Energy Star about Mercury and CFLs.

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Not to mention that it takes 16 x more energy to produce a CFL. Take the time to read about employees in these China CFL producing manufacturing facilities; they're being poisoned by the mercury. That "little bit" of mercury; average 4mg may or may not cause you brain damage, but I think the issue is the overall picture; mercury contaminating our earth. As stated in many articles that I have read; these CFLs that are not being recycled and are contaminating the environment with approx 30,000 lbs of mercury each year. Hey and it only takes 4mg of mercury to contaminate up 7000 gallons of freshwater; meaning that the 30,000 lbs of mercury thrown away each year is enough to pollute nearly every lake, pond, river, and streat in North America; not to mention our beautiful oceans. Let's be honest here; the CFLs were a bandaid. The DOE is downplaying the affects of mercury on our country. Kind of like the tobacco companies testified on the witness stand; under God "smoking is not hazardous to your health". Take a look at the number of lawsuits due to mercury in our dental fillings and they too said, "mercury in dental fillings are not hazardous to your health". Oh and why is the government doing everything they can to accelerate LED development? Could it be because the government knows they acted too quickly and maybe padded their pockets in promoting CFLs. Do they know a train wreck is about to happen. It's only going to take ONE child to become disabled from the mercury and ONE lawsuit that will develope into a class action lawsuit. There is such a lack of awareness and the DOE is downplaying the affects of mercury. So who is going to take responsibility for the disabled child? The DOE or the manufacturer. The really sad thing is ultimately the parents will always blame themselves, because they took our government's word for being the truth.
ckmapawatt's picture
Tamra, I think you have some good points, but I'd really like to see some data to back it up. What data do you have to prove that mercury from CFLs not recycled properly is more than the mercury emitted from coal plants due to the increased energy required to burn incandescents? With that said, I will agree with you that LEDs are the future.
I love the Popular Mechanics link! I usually link to <a HREF="" rel="nofollow">this EPA information</A> which covers the same info, but many are disinclined to believe a government source. Who can argue with Popular Mechanics? :) And they state it very well. FWIW, I have broken exactly 1 CFL in my home since I started using them years ago. I cleaned it up, and moved on. And I'm still here, living breathing and typing ;)
I'm a fan of CFL but learned a lot about CFL when my 3-year-old son broke one in his carpeted room. I hope this helps others put mercury and CFLs "in perspective". FWIW, *anyone* who compares the weight (yes, weight, as in milligrams) of mercury in a compact fluorescent lightbulb with the weight of mercury in either a thermometer or a thermostat is guilty of comparing apples and oranges, because one is a gas and the other a liquid. You cannot produce light from a fluorescent lightbulb without that mercury being in gaseous form. Period. Should we expect people to be able to compare weights of gases and liquids? (I've often seen this presented misleadingly as cartoons of thermometers to downplay the relatively low weight of mercury vapor.) (Nevermind differences in *toxicity* of mercury gas versus liquid mercury, which is what *really* matters.) Next time someone from Greenpeace or the Sierra Club or the NRDC (or yes, the EPA) reminds you not to get your knickers in a knot because it's such a small weight of mercury in each and every CFL, please remind them that gases weigh less than liquids. Remind them that when 2 milligrams of mercury vapor escapes from a broken CFL, you could reach mercury vapor levels in that first cubic yard (cubic meter is the right unit, but close enough) that OSHA considers "Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health": 2 million nanograms per cubic meter or 2 milligrams per cubic meter. Remind your local recycler (after thanking them) that all those broken CFL and fluorescent lightbulbs are emitting mercury vapor; I see one estimate that 11% of the mercury vapor is released. And finally, the idea that it's better to bring an industrial, miniaturized technology into our homes with 0 guidance to customers for mercury vapor management than to scrub coal-fired powerplant stacks is bizarre. If I were the EPA, would I rather scrub the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants (a regulatory low apple) or chase all our landfills we are slowly turning into mercury smokestacks? I'd go after the 600 smokestacks, not the &amp;gt;13,000 old and active landfills. There are only about 1 million CFL sold in this country every day; what fraction are recycled (meaning the mercury vapor is captured on activated charcoal under vacuum)? 25%? So that translates to 750,000 CFL into landfills--eventually--every day. The EPA is reducing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. That's good. But it won't be long before mercury emissions to the atmosphere from unrecycled compact or not-compact fluorescent lightbulbs broken in landfills exceed emissions from coal-fired power plants. Bring on the LEDs. Faster!
ckmapawatt's picture
Tony, that's a great comment and presented issues that I hadn't fully considered before. I didn't really think about the difference in the gaseous and solid forms of mercury. I wonder if anyone has studied the effects of mercury vapor from a broken cfl? I'm sure it wouldnt be hard for a testing facility to break a bunch of CFLs (in a controlled environment) and see how the vapor escapes? In the end, I fully agree with you...bring on the LEDs! Luckily, after my trip to <a href="" rel="nofollow">LightFair 2011</a>, I think they're on their way.

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