Technical Guide 6: Fluorescent Lamps & Mercury

David Baggs, CEO and Technical Director


Right - Typical Linear Fluorescent Lamp (LFL)

Everybody knows that fluorescent lamps (FLs), in whatever form they come, the long straight, linear fluorescent lamps (LFLs) and the many forms of compact fluorescents lamps (CFLs), are energy efficient and better for the planet because they save energy and greenhouse gas emissions. But are they completely good for planetary health? Actually the answer is both YES and NO.

They do save energy and lots of it, using up to 75 percent less energy (electricity) than incandescent lamps, therefore they are good for reducing climate change impacts and they will also help reduce the number of new power plants that will have to be built in the coming years saving hugely in infrastructure costs within each country. They should continue to be used for these reasons alone.


However, there is a side to FLs that many are unaware of.  They contain very small amounts of mercury. Even extremely small amounts of mercury are hazardous in the environment and to our health and yet millions of LFLs and CFLs are used every year by offices, shops and homes and when finished are typically just thrown into the garbage and there transferred to landfill, creating an unnecessary, toxic time bomb that will last for millennia and pollute not just the ground, but ground water and any water body 'downstream' of the landfill.

Right - Sample Range of Compact Fluorescent  Lamps (CFLs)

Developed countries such as Australia have seen the need to collect and recycle FLs of all types, and have established recycling centres typically accessed by a visit to the local Council rubbish transfer station.

So how much mercury is in a FL? The amount varies from brand to brand and low mercury varieties are starting to become available. Mercury ranges from 1.4mg for new low mercury CFLSs to around 4-5mg for a typical CFL per lamp for average size CFLs and for LFLs it can be from around 5mg up to 22mg depending on the type and age of the tube .

So why is this an issue? Mercury is a very toxic and persistent heavy metal that when exposed to air (when a lamp or tube is broken) both sticks to the glass and evaporates into the air. The US EPA estimates that about 14 percent of the total amount- is released into air or water when it is broken or sent to a landfill. Is this enough to be an issue? Yes it is. When many of these small amounts are aggregated into landfills, the total quantity concentrated into a comparatively small area adds up to a large amount. The US Geological survey has shown that as little as 1g of mercury per year can have an observable impact on a 27 acre lake. If a million FLs per year go to landfill, it adds up to something like 1400-2100 grams (1.4-2.2kg) of elemental mercury. This has the potential to have major impacts on the environment and ultimately people's health over time. Admittedly with low rainfall the migration into ground water may well be slower, but it will not be zero.

How can Mercury be absorbed? Elemental  mercury found in FLs can be absorbed  through many different  pathways  including air, and contact with skin (mercury in general can also be found in the atmosphere, food, particularly fish, water, amalgam tooth fillings, cosmetic products and even vaccines).  Environment Canada warns that foetus and children are particularly susceptible to mercury toxicity. Mothers can pass mercury to foetus and to infants through breast milk if they have broken a FL and inhaled or touched the mercury vapours, glass or dust from FLs, or children can contact it directly from floors if they have been inadequately cleaned after a FL breakage.

What are the health impacts of Mercury? The health impacts of the elemental mercury decreases performance in areas of motor function and memory, disruption of attention, fine motor function and hormone and endocrine system function. Mercury has also been found to be a causative agent of various sorts of disorders, including neurological, renal (kidney), cardiovascular, immunological, motor, reproductive and even genetic. Recently heavy metal mediated toxicity has been linked to diseases like Alzheimers, Parkinson's, Autism and Lupus.  According  to Environment Canada it can impair the ability to feel, see, move and taste, and can cause numbness and tunnel vision can also cause personality changes, stupor, and in extreme cases, coma or death with recent findings describing adverse cardiovascular and immune system effects at very low levels.

It is also highly toxic in the marine and broader environment, where it accumulates in the food chain and eventually passes to humans via peak predators such a game fish (whether farmed or wild).

What you can do to avoid Mercury toxicity from FLs: Advice from US EPA shows that the best thing to do if a FL is broken is to immediately turn off the air conditioning system, open the windows and remove children and adults from the room immediately for minimum 15 minutes. Then carefully pick up the glass with gloved hands and wet wipe the dust off hard surfaces with disposable wipes. If it is on carpet carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag, use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder. If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag. When next the room is vacuumed make sure windows are open and air conditioning is turned off. Then dispose of the waste to an approved street or hazardous waste collection point. With these simple precautions, using FLs can be a safe and economical solution to energy saving lighting.


Right - T8 Fluorescent tube LED replacement tubes:
Image courtesy of Neutron International Ltd

Are there any alternatives to FLs? Light Emitting Diode lamps (LEDs) have come a long way towards meeting the luminous output of FLs. While there any many differing technologies (old and new) within the market, the newest LEDs are approximating FLs for efficiency and brightness. LEDs are mercury free, but contain very small amounts of indium, a very rare metal and another potently toxic one. However they have a life 8-12 times longer again than LFLs or CFLs and are much more robust so users are not likely to come into contact with the indium. While they are more expensive, the incredibly long durability means the overall costs can be lower, particularly in a commercial situation where labour costs are involved in changing lamps. There are also cold cathode and plasma lights with even longer lifespans, suitable for commercial uses to replace mercury vapour and mercury containing, metal halide and sodium vapour lamps.

mercury recovery.pngIs there a mercury trade-off from  gas-turbine generated power? In locations where coal fired power stations are common, mercury emissions saved from burning coal more than offsets the mercury used in FLs. In an interesting twist, because most new power plants use gas rather than coal (even diesel plants generate less mercury than coal), they are much cleaner and hence do not provide a compensation for the mercury in the FLs. This makes it all the more important to recycle FLs and capture the mercury before allowing it to be dispersed into landfills.

Richt - Packaged Mercury Recovery Machine:
Image courtesy of MRT Sweden

Is there any case not to recycle fluorescent lamps? Once collected and boxed, FLs can easily be shipped to an existing recycling plant locally or overseas where the mercury can be recovered and all the other components also recycled. CFLs in particular have integrated electronics that also contain other hazardous metals such as lead and indium. It is even more important that CFLs are collected, recycled and toxic elements recovered. In the US, you can even recycle your CFLs at the local Home Depot store.

cfl recycling.pngImplement a formal FL recycling program in your office (and home): The key issue is not to put them in the rubbish and for companies to implement formal FL recycling programs and not leave it to Facilities Managers or cleaners to dispose of them thoughtlessly.

Right - CFL Recycling Initiative Logo:
Image courtesy of Home Depot



Health Impacts: accessed 29/3/12 accessed 29/3/12

Cleanup Guide From accessed 29/3/12