Energy-efficient light bulbs or fluorescent tubes: what to do if they break
Energy-efficient light bulbs and fluorescent tubes contain small amounts of mercury. If they break, mercury is released. This causes a minimal health risk, but dispose of all the glass and mercury carefully.
The Climate and Pollution Agency is committed to reducing emissions of mercury and mercury compounds as they are toxic.
In 2008, the EU prohibited almost all uses of mercury. However, we need to save energy . Common incandescent light bulbs will soon become unavailable because they generate more heat than light. These are being replaced by energy-efficient light bulbs, which contain mercury.
Why is mercury used in light bulbs?
Fluorescent lamps and energy-saving bulbs contain small amounts of mercury for them to work efficiently (low power consumption). Mercury also prolongs the lifetime of these products. Within the light source there is a low pressure and a temperature of about 40 °C where the gas discharge unit contains mercury vapour (the boiling point of mercury is 357 °C, although some mercury evaporates at room temperature where it is in liquid form, and even more at 40 °C). When the lamp is switched off, almost all the mercury is condensed as particles. As the light source ages, some of the mercury is absorbed into the coating on the inside of the glass.
In a few years, LED-based light sources will become more affordable and these do not contain mercury. Until then, we must use light sources that each contain 2-5 milligrams of metallic mercury. This is not a lot but is enough that we should take some simple precautions if a fluorescent tube or a bulb shatters.
What should you do if a mercury-containing bulb or tube shatters?
- Open the window to air the room while cleaning up.
- Gather together the bits of the bulb as thoroughly as possible.
- Visible particles and glass residue can be picked up using a piece of tape.
- Use a dustpan and brush and wipe thoroughly with a damp cloth.
- Both the cloth and glass should be placed in a sealable plastic bag for delivery to an approved waste recycling facility (the bag should be placed outdoors until disposal).
- Loose rugs can be taken outside and beaten (such tiny amounts should not harm the environment).
- The room should be aired for 15 minutes after cleaning.
What about the vacuum cleaner?
Vacuuming can help to spread the mercury residue, and therefore should be avoided if the floor has a smooth surface without cracks. However, if you have carpets or cracks in the floor it is still best to use the vacuum cleaner, so that all the glass residue and mercury are removed.
Mercury particles may remain in the vacuum cleaner, so after use you should let the vacuum cleaner run for half an hour outdoors before changing the dust bag. The vacuum cleaner bag should be disposed with the other waste from the clean-up. In addition, you can remove the vacuum hose and rinse the inside well with water.
What should you do with worn out energy-saving light bulbs and tubes?
All used energy-saving light bulbs and tubes, whether they are broken or not, should be delivered to an approved waste recycling facility. Then you have played your part in making sure that mercury is handled correctly.
No reason to panic
There is very little mercury in a bulb, and it is difficult to imagine how exposure may be hazardous. However, it is a good rule to dispose of all the glass and the mercury residue.
The mercury is actually most dangerous when it comes out into nature, because it is converted to organic mercury compounds that can be ingested, particularly by fish. These mercury compounds are highly toxic and can find their way into certain foodstuffs. It is therefore important that mercury is not released into the environment.