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Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs – The Dangers of CFLs

Many environmentally conscious people think they are doing a great thing by using compact fluorescent light bulbs – CFLs. We see them advertised everywhere, even our most trusted environmental news sources tells us we should be using them. In the United States, production of traditional incandescent light bulbs will be phased out completely by the year 2012.

Unfortunately most people are unaware of and not many are talking about the fact that although CFL bulbs reduce energy and greenhouse gases, they put our health at an even greater risk than incandescent bulbs. They are energy efficient but not environmentally friendly.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that can cause serious damage to the all the tissues and organs in the body as well as the central nervous system and endocrine system and it disrupts functioning of crucial neurotransmitters in the brain. It is one of the most toxic substances on the planet and has been linked to a variety of serious health conditions like autism, memory problems, infertility, depression, thyroid disorders, alzheimers, adrenal disorders, anxiety, Parkinson’s and MS to name a few. It is especially toxic to children, pregnant women and small pets.

While the mercury is contained in the light bulb there is no risk, however if you drop the bulb on the floor of your home, then you are exposed to dangerous mercury vapors. Many are reporting that it is quite easy to break CFL light bulbs as you are screwing it in the socket. Additionally, when we toss them in the garbage and they are picked up by the garbage company, they are getting broken all over the city and in the landfills. This means that our air and soil is being contaminated with mercury across our cities.

In an interview with CNN, Ron Hui, a Hong Kong professor, chairman of the electronic engineering department and co-author of a recent peer reviewed publication on the environmental impact of CFLs, tells us that each bulb contains “3-5 milligrams of mercury. The safe intake of mercury for a human body is a few micrograms. One milligram is 1,000 micrograms.” However, other studies report that CFL bulbs may contain as much as 30 milligrams of mercury and estimate that they are releasing about two to four tons of mercury into our air each year.

Furthermore, Hui points out that no one wants to talk about the issue that the circuit board of the bulbs, which is where the mercury is implanted, can’t be recycled and there is nowhere for the toxins to go but our air and soil and we are creating a ticking time for our future generations.

The EPA claims that using compact fluorescent light bulbs leads to less mercury in our environment because they require less electricity and coal-fired power plants which are the main contributors to mercury emissions. However, that is preposterous. As professor Hui points out, we may be saving energy, have less greenhouse gases and mercury emitted during the process than we did in the creation of incandescent bulbs, but when manufacturing bulbs the mercury contamination is specific to the power plant itself. With CFL light bulbs, we have now brought the mercury into all our homes, city streets, soil and landfills.

Hui, also tells us that although we are under the impression that CFLs last longer than incandescent bulbs they are not as energy efficient as we have been led to believe because of a high failure rate within the electrolytic capacitor. However, the most scary piece of information to emerge from this interview is when Hui shares with us that the CFL is a very profitable business and manufacturers are not likely to pursue more environmentally friendly options, until the public becomes more aware and pressures the government to step in.

Even General Electric themselves have been quoted as admitting that the mercury in the bulbs may become a serious problem as sales of CFLs increase. Since it will soon be a mandatory practice, it is obvious we have a huge problem on the horizon.

In a recent study in the state of Maine, a number of clean up methods were tested after researches broke 65 compact fluorescent light bulbs and the air quality was found to contain up to 100 times the levels of mercury than is considered safe by federal guidelines.

In some cities and states, who are developing some awareness, it is illegal to put a CFL bulb into the garbage as they are considered to be hazardous waste. However many of them have not come up with other convenient options for disposal and thus most people continue to do so any ways. However, even if we do provide easy methods of disposal we are still left with the problem that the circuit board containing the mercury can’t be recycled so mercury waste is going to be accumulating somewhere regardless. Not only that, most people are not recyclers and many people could care less about the environment, even when it is illegal to do so, many people will not abide by the rules and they will end up in the garbage any ways. There is no way to contain this beast.

Some states are now publishing guidelines on how to reduce your risk for toxic exposure from a broken bulb. They tell us the following things

Guidelines for Cleaning Up Broken CFL Bulbs

Suggestions will vary depending on the source, but here are the most common.

  • remove children, pregnant women and pets immediately
    (they should not participate in or be present during the clean up process)
  • ventilate the area well
  • open a window and leave the room for at least 15 minutes
  • wear gloves, a mask and safety glasses
  • do not use a sweeper or a broom to clean it up
  • do not turn on your heating or air conditioning system
  • pick up big pieces with your fingers
  • use sticky tape to get small pieces
  • wipe the area with a wet rag
  • place all broken materials collected as well as all materials used in the clean up process in a second sealed plastic bag (air tight) or a screw-top glass jar and remove them from the house.
  • throw everything away that was used in the clean up process, including the rag and gloves.
  • if the break occurs on a carpet, cut that piece of that carpet out and throw it away.
  • wash your hands immediately
  • call your local recycling center to see if they collect CFL bulbs, otherwise put it in the trash.
  • as a preventative measure, it is suggested that compact fluorescent light bulbs should never be used in areas where there is carpeting or in sockets where a breakage is more likely to occur.

Wow, that’s quite a protocol and an awfully lot to go through just to reduce energy and greenhouse gases. It really makes no sense. Does this really sound like a product we want to be using? I don’t think so. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we haven’t solved anything with CFL bulbs, we’ve only created an even bigger and more toxic monster.

There are a couple problems with the protective measures mentioned above even if you follow them perfectly.

  1. You have been exposed to mercury in the process of cleaning it up, so you have breathed in the vapor and absorbed it. So your health has been impacted by it at least to some degree.
  2. The mercury will not be gone completely. There will still be residue that will take time to break down and thus you will be exposed to mercury during this time period.
  3. Now for the average healthy adult, they may not see immediate consequences to their health with one broken bulb. However, if it occurs frequently, then it can accumulate in the body. On the other hand, for people with chemical sensitivities or chronic health conditions, they could have severe reactions and become quite ill for a long time with a single broken bulb.

Mercury is not the only problem with CFLs either. Other studies now tell us that they also expose us to dangerous electro magnetic pollution. Physicians report they are seeing an increase in migraines, headaches and severe skin rashes caused by compact fluorescent light bulbs.

So what should you do? Don’t use CFLs.

One alternative is to stock up on as many incandescent bulbs as you can so you have them in stock for the future, but another option is to use LED bulbs. provides us with an environmentally friendly choice. They’re a little more expensive, but they are ten times more energy efficient than incandescent and three times more efficient than CFLs and they contain no mercury.

References and More in Depth Must Read Information on CFLs

Also be sure to pass the word and help others to become aware of the dangers of compact fluorescent light bulbs. The more aware people become, the quicker manufacturers will be in responding to demands for a safer, more environmentally friendly bulb.

18 thoughts on “Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs – The Dangers of CFLs”

  1. Well, the risk of breaking one is probably not huge and the mercury content is very small. But it may still be prudent to avoid them just in case, especially if you’re sensitive and/or have children. CFLs don’t give as high a quality light anyway.

    Producing a mercury-free CFL does not seem to be possible as the mercury is needed in chemical process to produce fluorescent light.

    The mercury-free alternatives for home use are:

    * Incandescent
    * Halogen
    * LED

    * Incandescent bulbs give the most human-friendly light for those who are sensitive and prefer quality before quantity. Will be phased out, as you say, unless enough people put their foot down about this banning craze.

    * Halogen is an improved incandescent bulb that costs a little more but lasts twice as long or more and give a top quality, sunny warm-white light. Come in many varieties from little 12V spotlights, floodlight minitubes to energy savers in retrofit bulbs which can be used in standard light fittings. The spotlight version gets very hot and glaring so not always optimal with children unless used in recessed ceiling light fittings. Most halogen lamps are also under threat and will be phased out in Europe and probably in other parts of the world too unless people react in time.

    * LEDs are still under development and don’t have the same light quality as the other two but more quantity and last very long. Very expensive but will probably get more affordable with time.

    I think people should be left with a choice which type of light they want to use, since it depends on the situation which type is most appropriate. In cooler climates, for example, the heat from incandescent bulbs will keep heating bills down, while they may be inappropriate in warmer climates where excess heat is a problem rather than an asset.

    On my website you can sign a petition to keep the bulb, and read more about why CFLs give a poor light, actually don’t save much at all and just constitute an environmental hazard if not recycled correctly.

    Green regards from Halogenica

  2. Hi Halogenica,

    Thanks for the additional info. Your site has lots of good info too, so I encourage others to visit the Halogenica site.

    However, I must say that I disagree that the risk of breaking a bulb is small and the amount of mercury is not small.

    I drop things all the time, so that’s one common risk. Then anyone with children and pets know that knocking over lamps is a common occurrence. The elderly or disabled also have trouble with holding onto to things. Then there’s the fact that people are reporting they break easily in the socket.

    Then as Professor Hui told us the safe level of mercury for the human body is only a few micrograms and each bulb contains 3-5 milligrams. That’s way over the safe limit. Then there are other experts that will tell us there is no safe level at all of mercury.

    So I would say it is definitely prudent to avoid them.


  3. Looked it up and that seems to be correct, although exact figures are hard to find.

    Breathing vapourised metallic mercury seems to be more hazardous than actually swallowing some as it more readily gets absorbed by the body.

    “When you breathe in mercury vapors, however, most (about 80%) of the mercury enters your bloodstream directly from your lungs, and then rapidly goes to other parts of your body, including the brain and kidneys. Once in your body, metallic mercury can stay for weeks or months. When metallic mercury enters the brain, it is readily converted to an inorganic form and is ‘trapped’ in the brain for a long time.”

  4. Yes, that is correct and when you break a CFL you are breathing vaporized mercury.

    Mercury can accumulate in any of the organs and tissues of the body and cause a great deal of damage.

    I would also side with the experts who say that there is no safe level of mercury. It should not be in the human body in any amount.


  5. These bulbs break very easily. I broke 4 in one week. They also can be a fire hazzard, I had one smoke, I was lucky to be right there and shut off the lamp, who knows if this thing could of caused a fire. With all the problems, I have removed all from my home. The risk out weigh the slight benifit or energy savings. Save the environment and ban these bulbs before we have serious mercury contamination world wide.

  6. Fluorescent bulbs, especially when they are place close to where I am reading or doing any focus work set off my migraines and petite mal seizures.

    It is their flicker rate.

    For me this means that if I stay at a hotel, I now need to bring my own task light.

    If I go to a restaurant, someone in my party usually unscrews the light in the booth for me. If not, by the end of the meal I would be very ill (my option is to just stay home all the time, and besides being highly antisocial, it is just no fun to be forced to do that due to people’s new love of fluorescent light.)

    I view the phasing out of incandescent bulbs with much trepidation.

    Yet, our society shuns electric cars and other energy and environmental saving practices.

    The bulbs must get good PR.

  7. […] Does anyone believe that last part?  That the government didn’t know about the dangers?  Honestly, whether they did or not, it’s their job to know.   Before Big Bro– I mean the federal government mandates the behavior of the American people (i.e., forcing them to buy health insurance or banning trans fats or a certain type of light bulb), shouldn’t they at least have a clue what the ramifications of their mandates will be? In an interview with CNN, Ron Hui, a Hong Kong professor, chairman of the electronic engineering department and co-author of a recent peer reviewed publication on the environmental impact of CFLs, tells us that each bulb contains “3-5 milligrams of mercury. The safe intake of mercury for a human body is a few micrograms. One milligram is 1,000 micrograms.” However, other studies report that CFL bulbs may contain as much as 30 milligrams of mercury and estimate that they are releasing about two to four tons of mercury into our air each year.                ( […]

  8. As the result of her research, Dr. Magda Havas states that one CFL contaminates 190,000 litres (>50,000 U.S. gallons) of water beyond the level considered safe for drinking.

    Dr. Kenneth Ciuffreda’s research studies the impact of Critical Flicker Frequency on many people with brain injury or neurological disorders.

    Both of these scientists’ studies can be found on the website

    Also, both CBC and Global TV 16:9 have videos demonstrating the adverse impacts of CFLs on that website.

  9. Very scary stuff. Can you tell me how long you would expect the levels of mercury to stay toxic after a CFL breakage? One was broken in our daughters bedroom about 5 years ago. At the time the bulbs were new and we were unaware of the concerns that are now apparent. She hasnt been well for what seems like years now, with no apparent reason. Could it be mercury residue after causing adverse health effects afterr 5 years?

  10. I had a headache for 6 weeks,Went thru all kind of tests & no one could find my problem . It was CFL bulbs. They damaged the nerve endings in my right temple. I do have Fibromyalgia & RA. We need to ban the bulbs.

  11. My husband was laying on the couch and all at once there was a terrible smoke with a very strong odor. It was right at his head . I am concerned what side effects we could get from it.I think they should be banned from our homes. Esther Shaffer

  12. Bernard Biberdorf PE (Retired)

    For several years I have been a strong advocate for the use of using lamps instead of incandescent lamps. As a result we have saved a considerable amount on our electric bill over the years.
    However, yesterday (6-6-12) I received an e-mail from a friend. The e-mail contained a PDF attachment which told of a horrific story showing the result of the accidental breaking of a CFL lamp. Severe burns and infection was a result when the mercury came in contact with an open wound. This info can viewed in the Salisbury Fire Dept April 2012 Training Newsletter. The address is:
    Salsbury Fire Dept
    325 Cypress St
    Salisbury, MD 21801
    Lt. James L Jester
    Tel: 410-548-1253 Ext.112

  13. Thanks for this info! I broke a cfl in my bedroom two weeks ago, did everything wrong in cleaning it up, and experienced immediate symptoms (rapid heartbeat, “burned” feeling in windpipe, headache, etc.). I’ve been sleeping in a different room ever since and trying to ventilate the bedroom, although it’s difficult right now, since it’s a very cold winter. I tried returning to the room yesterday and experienced a mild recurrence of symptoms. Do you have any advice on how long it will be until the mercury dissipates and the room is safe to return to?

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