How to Clean up a Broken Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) Bulb

Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) Bulb


One of the simplest activities that anyone can undertake to reduce their energy use (and their electricity bills!) is to switch out their traditional light bulbs with the newer, Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs. They save money, last longer, and are better for the environment.

Our regular readers may remember that we covered all this in our Ultimate Guide to Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) Bulbs.

But they have one downside — they contain small amounts of Mercury.

The Mercury is used inside the bulbs to increase their efficiency. Only a small amount is used, but you should still be careful. (A CFL bulb contains only 1/100th of the mercury in old-style mercury thermometers.)

The main issues with Mercury are:

  1. If they break, the mercury can escape into your home, and
  2. They should not be disposed of into your normal trash.

If a CFL bulb breaks in your home, the amount of mercury released isn’t much — but you should use caution if this happens.

According to the U.S. EPA, here are directions to clean up a CFL bulb that has broken. [PDF] Here are their directions:

How should I clean up a broken fluorescent bulb?

EPA recommends the following clean-up and disposal guidelines:

1. Open a window and leave the room (restrict access) for at least 15 minutes.

2. Remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner. Wear disposable rubber gloves, if available (do not use your bare hands). Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard. Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe. Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.

3. Place all cleanup materials in a plastic bag and seal it. If your state permits you to put used or broken CFLs in the garbage, seal the CFL in two plastic bags and put into the outside trash (if no other disposal or recycling options are available). Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.

4. The first time you vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag once done cleaning the area (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag and/or vacuum debris, as well as the cleaning materials, in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.

Newer CFL bulbs are now being made that use about half of the mercury that older ones used.

27 thoughts on “How to Clean up a Broken Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) Bulb

  1. Thank you very much for that! I’ve been thinking about making the switch for quite a while but the mercury issue really worries me and I just KNOW I will break one of the stupid things.

  2. why is everybody still so hyped about CFL bulbs?

    LEDs are way better

    and there are now companies making LED bulbs
    to fit standard light sockets.

    no mercury,
    a million hours of usage (roughly 114 years!),
    highly precise and customizable color spectrum,
    easily made highly directional…

    what’s not to love?

  3. Jessica, that’s great news! I was just talking to Kevin about recycling CFLs on a post on this blog last week sometime! I hadn’t noticed that information in the IKEA catalogue.

    Since I bought all of my CFLs from IKEA, I guess I’ll be able to take them back for recycling when I need more!

    Good on IKEA for taking the initiative. Hopefully, other retailers who sell CFL bulbs will follow their lead.

  4. jhimm: LEDs that fit in standard sockets? That’s incredible! I didn’t know those existed. I’ll have to look into that. LEDs are probably the most efficient type of (commercially available) light bulbs we have.

    I always wondered why I could get them for my Christmas tree, but had never even heard about people making them for my regular light fixtures.

  5. adam snider: Mythbusters included an LED-based “bulb” in an episode they did on testing issues regarding energy use “at start up” vs. sustained usage (“is it ‘better’ to leave the lights on all the time or turn them on and off all the time”). the LED bulb was actually about 100 LED’s crammed onto an object shaped like a standard incandescent bulb which could be fitted into a standard socket. given that they chose to include it, i have to conclude they can’t be -that- hard to get ahold of, but i can’t point you to anything that i have on hand.

    my bigger hope is that newly built homes will be built with LED lighting solutions instead of ceiling sockets, track lighting solutions or what have you which require standard socket sized bulbs. LED solutions can be far more versatile as well as more energy efficient, provided we don’t lock ourselves into the current narrow definition of a “lamp”.

  6. just a quick question… do regular Fluorescent bulbs have mercury? I see shop owners and people throwing broken or used fluorescent bulbs [illegally] in the trash cans on the corner or I find them in the trash area at my building… any ideas about that?

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  9. jhimm: I have been testing LED and CFL lamps in GU10 housings. The previous owner of our house kindly put 240v halogen spots everywhere and as bulbs die, I am looking for a suitable low energy replacements. In terms of light output the CFL currently has it over the LED.

  10. Sorry for this late post: what really worries me is what will happen 5-10 years from now. Canada has mandated a switch to CFLs in the next few years, imagine millions of those lights being tossed in the garbage with no consideration for mercury still present inside. Even though each bulb contains very small amounts of mercury, could we be creating a greater disaster long term?

  11. Hi there,
    Great post. I have just one comment to make, which also addresses jptownley’s question:

    “The Mercury is used inside the bulbs to increase their efficiency.”

    Mercury is used in all fluorescent light fittings but it is not to make them more efficient. The mercury is the light source! An electrical discharge through the tube excites the mercury atoms, vapourising the mercury and causing it to emit UV radiation. Phosphorescent coatings on the lamp convert the UV into visible light.

  12. Thanks, I wasn’t aware the CFL Bulbs had Mercury in them. We now know the harm Mercury can do to us all after hearing about it’s use in medicine we all took as kids. I wonder if the money you save using CFL Bulbs is worth the risk of getting Mercury in our blood streams. Can’t they event something that won’t hurt us???

  13. Although I applaud attempts to save energy, I think the CFL bulbs
    and their use by the public should be totally banded.
    Just think of the acumulative effects of those that don’t know how
    or just don’t clean up period.I don’t think people should be trusted
    on this level.
    If we are truly concerned for our enviroment, we should take these kinds of risk for the sake of saving energy.

  14. LED bulbs available to fit a standard lamp will only give off 60 lumens of light compared with 850 lumens from a standard incandescent bulb or 800 from an CFL, all 60 watt equivalent.

  15. In Spain, if you sell a recyclable product you have to accept them back for recycling. So what Ikea does is just compulsory.

    Regarding low-consumption lamps, this is funny: The Government taxes you whenever you buy one of them, because reclycling has a cost. Then you take it to the shop when it is fawlty, the shop has to comply and take it back, but they have nowhere to send them for recycling because there are no facilities of the kind!

    And since they are low-consumption, they are trying to make you buy them, to the extent that they are going to stop selling incandescent bulbs. But then you have to pay the taxes (which are useless) which makes the product more expensive. If it is “ecological”, should the use of them not be promoted, say, making them cheaper because the Government pays part of it?

    Crazy, absolutely crazy…

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  17. Wish I had read this before my last CFL broke. I wasn’t worried about getting cut so I cleaned it with my bare hands immediately after it broke and just put it in the garbage. So much for waiting 15 mins, using rubber gloves, then vacuuming and putting that bag in a sealed plastic bag…

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