Cleaning up when you break a CFL light bulb

by thomas on July 23, 2009 (Feature image by AZAdam)

Closeup of CFL light bulb

Here’s the first thing to do if you break one of your CFL light bulbs: Don’t panic.

While there is some mercury in CFLs, your health won’t be ruined just because you break one of them. Or three, for that matter.

That being said, mercury is harmful enough to warrant some extra precautions if you’re unlucky enough to spill it in your home.

The following instructions were copied from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s mercury spill page, which also has instructions for cleaning up more significant mercury spills (which you would get if, say, you broke a mercury thermometer).

Before clean-up:
Air out the room

  • Have people and pets leave the room, and don’t let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
  • Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
  • Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

Clean-up steps for hard surfaces

  • Carefully scoop up glass pieces and powder using stiff paper or cardboard 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.
  • Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.
  • Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

Clean-up steps for carpeting or rugs

  • 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.

Clean-up steps for clothing, bedding and other soft materials

  • If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away. Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.
  • You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, such as the clothing you are wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.
  • If shoes come into direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from the bulb, wipe them off with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal.

Disposal of clean-up materials

  • Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup.
  • Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials.
  • Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

Future cleaning of carpeting or rug: Air out the room during and after vacuuming

  • The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.
  • Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.

Think the above sounds like a bit of a hassle? Don’t worry – it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever break a CFL in the first place. In fact, if you’re careful, this post might end up being completely useless for you ;-)

PS: Remember that all light bulbs should be recycled properly – whether they’re broken or not. This includes the regular incandescent variety (it contains lead).

{3 comments... read them below or add one }

This post was tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Related posts:

  1. Light bulbs are hazardous waste
  2. Light bulbs: What types are there and how do they work?
  3. Giving LED light bulbs a test run
  4. 6 reasons why you worry too much about the mercury in CFLs
  5. Repair stuff, save both kinds of green

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

thomas June 7, 2011 at 19:42

@max: Thanks for commenting.

“Potentially life-saving steps” sounds very dramatic – overly so, in fact. But then again, those words weren’t mine :-D

As I wrote towards the start of the above post, the mercury in one CFL isn’t enough to ruin your health alone. But it’s better to not inhale the fumes from it than to inhale it. Which is why the clean-up steps might come in handy.

You probably won’t die if you get a splinter in your hand, but it’s better to not get it – so wear protection gloves when you handle rough wooden boards.

That being said: CFLs are certainly not perfect. LED bulbs will probably be a way better alternative in the near future.

I’ve already bought a few of the newer types, and are very pleased with them. Good light, low electricity usage and no mercury :-)

max March 22, 2011 at 00:36

I just broke a cfl and googled the clean-up procedures. OH MY!

Am I the only one who finds this comical? Black comedy that is. This all sounds like a bad joke. ‘They are safe. But if you ever break a lightbulb follow these 15 potentially life-saving steps.’

“Think the above sounds like a bit of a hassle? Don’t worry – it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever break a CFL in the first place. In fact, if you’re careful, this post might end up being completely useless for you”

I find that statement as comforting as the Japanese people find comments about nuclear safety. Sure that is a terrible stretch, but the fact that safety agencies greenlghted consumers bringing mercury into their homes has me baffled.

I think the clean-up procedures clearly demonstrate how safe these bulbs ‘truly’ are. I am off to stock up on incandescants!

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: