Compact fluorescent lamps (CFL), commonly known as energy-saving lamps are identified by their fluorescent tube bent onto itself or even wrapped. These bulbs use less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs, they contain mercury, a substance that can be harmful to humans and to the environment. This is why we must take some precautions when a CFL bulb breaks or is no longer working.
How does this work?
When electric current is passed through mercury vapour contained in the CFL, it emits ultraviolet light that in turn illuminates the phosphor coating inside the tube. This "fluorescence" has given its name to the "CFL" bulbs.
Are these bulbs dangerous to humans?
These bulbs contain mercury and therefore like any electrical apparatus, also produce a small amount of ultraviolets (UV) and emit electromagnetic fields.
When a CFL lamp is in good condition, mercury cannot escape. On the other hand, if a bulb breaks, caution is a must because then mercury can escape. The room must be ventilated and special precautionstaken when clearing up the broken glass and other debris. Mercury is toxic, even at low doses!
Breathing mercury vapours can cause various ailments (insomnia, memory loss, headaches). This substance can also affect the kidneys, thyroid gland and heart. It is a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to the developing nervous system of embryos and young children. This is why pregnant women should avoid exposure to mercury.
Regarding radiation and UV, CFL bulbs are risk-free in daily use (lighting of a room, ambient light, etc.). Only when one is under the lamp (less than 20 cm of a desk lamp or a lamp on a bedside table) for a long time that exposure may pose a risk to people who are particularly sensitive to light.
Danger to the environment
Mercury and its compounds are very harmful to the ecosystems and to wild animals. Bacteria can convert it into methylmercury, which can accumulate in organisms (the phenomenon is called bioaccumulation). Animals higher in the food chain (such as mammals, for example) can accumulate high concentrations of methylmercury in this manner. Methylmercury can have serious effects, especially on the developing nervous system. Humans can ingest methylmercury through food (especially fish). Learn more about the risks of mercury.
What should I do when a CFL bulb no longer works?
When the bulb is faulty, it is imperative to bring it to the store (www.recupel.be) or to the container yard (small hazardous waste). We must above all avoid throwing it in the waste bin or breaking it so as not to release mercury in to the environment.
What should I do when a CFL bulb breaks?
When a lit bulb breaks, mercury vapours are released into the living area. When an extinguished bulb breaks, mercury spreads mainly in the form of droplets that will gradually evaporate at room temperature.
In both cases, people may temporarily inhale mercury vapours.
To limit the duration of exposure to mercury and to get rid of waste, follow the instructions given below in the order given:
Step 1: Before cleaning
- Take other people (especially pregnant women and children!) and pets outside the affected room until the cleaning is completed.
- Ventilate the room and vacate it for 15 minutes before starting the cleaning.
Step 2: Cleaning and Waste Management
- Wear rubber gloves to protect yourself from broken glass.
Step 3: After cleaning
- Continue ventilating the room for several hours.
Mercury: a controlled substance at European level
Given the danger of mercury, the European legislation on the restriction of hazardous substances (Directive 2002/95/EC, also called RoHS Directive - Restriction of Hazardous Substances), strictly regulates the amount of mercury in CFL bulbs. It cannot exceed 2.5 mg as of 2013.
On the other hand, the European legislation on ecodesign of lamps (Regulation 244/2009) requires manufacturers to indicate on the packing the amount of mercury (Hg) contained in the bulb and the website that can be consulted if the bulb breaks.
Mercury is necessary to ensure the functioning of CFLs. However, the industry is trying different solutions to minimise the risks associated with its use (e.g. using a mix that keeps mercury in its solid form to prevent toxic fumes from releasing and escaping in case of breakage of the bulb).
Good to know
• Bulbs containing less than 2.5 mg of mercury are already in the market. Be careful. Look for them while shopping by reading the label of bulbs carefully!
• The site www.energivores.be, will enable you to assess the energy consumption of your lighting and will help you in your selection when purchasing new bulbs.