Cleaning Up Broken CFLs: Environmental Health: Minnesota Dept. of Health

CFLs: General Information and Cleanup


The use of CFLs reduces the amount of mercury in the environment. Reducing unnecessary exposures to mercury, as well as to other hazardous substances is an important part of leading a healthy life.

  • Mercury is released into the air when power plants burn coal to make energy. 
  • Using CFLs reduces mercury in the atmosphere by reducing energy usage. 
  • The potential for harm to human health is small from the low amount of mercury in one broken CFL.

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Which is worse? A broken fever thermometer or a broken CFL?

The broken fever thermometer is worse. Both the thermometer and CFL contain elemental mercury. The amount of mercury contained in a CFL is about 1/100th of the amount in a fever thermometer. 

The rare exposure to mercury from a broken CFL will not affect your health. 

  • When a CFL breaks, 30% of the mercury is released into the air through vapor. 
  • Most of the mercury that is left sticks to phosphor powder or broken pieces of glass and metal. 
  • Because the mercury sticks to other materials that are easy to see, the mercury is easier to see and clean up.

The rare exposure to mercury from a broken fever thermometer will also not
affect your health. However, there is potential for serious exposure if the mercury from a fever thermometer is heated or not thoroughly cleaned up.

  • The liquid mercury from a fever thermometer can break into small drops or beads and be very difficult to see, especially in carpets. These hidden drops can give off mercury vapor for many years. 
  • Generally, the rule for cleaning up any mercury is to appropriately dispose of any soft material (rug, upholstery) that may trap mercury, and to refrain from vacuuming (which may increase your exposure) until you are certain that you have completely finished cleaning up.  For instructions on how to safely clean up and prevent ongoing exposures to mercury vapor from a fever thermometer, see the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency PDF Cleaning up spilled mercury in the home

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How can I reduce my exposure to mercury if a CFL breaks in my home?

The exposure to mercury from a broken CFL bulb is very small. If for some reason you are unable to follow these steps, your health will not be affected by this infrequent exposure to mercury. To clean up a broken CFL, follow these steps:

  • Open the window to allow fresh air into the room to dilute the mercury vapor. When a CFL breaks, some of the mercury it contains turns to vapor immediately. A brief, one-time exposure to this level of mercury vapor is not a health concern for a person of any age. 
  • The remaining mercury is attached to the phosphor powder, broken glass and metal. 
  • Carefully follow MPCA’s instructions to use stiff paper or cardboard to collect larger pieces, duct tape to collect the smaller pieces and then wipe with a damp cloth. This cleanup process will remove almost all the mercury. 
  • Vacuuming after clean up with the windows open allows any vapors created by vacuuming to be diluted. (Vacuuming before a complete clean up causes more mercury to vaporize into the air.) Then, take the vacuum outside to change the bag or empty the canister.
  • Place fragments, damp cloth and vacuum cleaner bag in a sealed plastic bag and store outside in a safe place away from children until your next trip to the household hazardous waste center. 

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How can I reduce the chance of breaking a CFL?

  • Store CFLs in the original packaging. 
  • Always hold the bulb by its base, not the glass tubing. Never force the bulb to turn in the socket. 
  • When changing a CFL, place a small cloth under the light fixture in case the bulb falls and breaks.

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How can I get rid of a burned out or broken bulb?

Recycle CFLS and all fluorescent or other mercury-containing bulbs. In Minnesota, it’s against the law to toss CFLs in the regular trash. CFLs must be taken to the hardware store or retail store for recycling or a household hazardous waste facility. Don’t intentionally break burned out CFLs. 

To find out where it is, go to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's webpage Local household hazardous waste collection programs.

For more information on how to recycle bulbs, see the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency webpage Fluorescent light bulbs: Use them, recycle them.

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If CFLs have mercury inside and can’t be tossed in the regular trash, how can they be better for our health and the environment?

CFLs do contain a very small amount of mercury. However, the additional energy required to power other types of bulbs causes much more mercury to be released into the air from coal-fired power plants. 

Even the small amount of mercury in CFLs can be disposed of safely.

  • The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Office of Energy Security (Department of Commerce) recommend using CFLs to save energy. 

  • Recycle all fluorescent bulbs, including CFLs

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Updated Tuesday, July 18, 2017 at 01:05PM