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Ask Charlie | December 03, 2009

Q: What is the correct method to dispose of CFL light bulbs that contain mercury? - SEATTLE

A: Dear Daemon,

Switching to Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs) is an excellent choice to make when it comes to energy savings. However, CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, a highly toxic substance, and are not allowed in the garbage. Here are a few options for recycling CFL tubes and bulbs in Seattle:


Mercury in CFLs
CFL bulbs contain approximately 4 milligrams of mercury – about the amount that would fit on the tip of a ballpoint pen. This small but critical amount of mercury is what enables CFLs to operate up to 75% more efficiently than traditional incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer.

Mercury is safely sealed within the bulb’s glass coating while intact and in use. Environmental contamination occurs when the bulbs break and mercury is released. Precipitation washes mercury into surrounding bodies of water where it is absorbed by naturally occurring bacteria and aquatic organisms. Mercury travels up the food chain as predatory fish consume smaller contaminated fish. Species at each successive level of the food chain consume higher concentrations of mercury because they are unable to eliminate toxins faster than they are consumed.

Humans are exposed to mercury almost entirely by eating contaminated fish and wildlife. Those most at risk are pregnant women and small children. Exposure to mercury can cause damage to the central nervous system and contribute to developmental disorders in children.


Incandescent vs. CFLs
Despite concerns over mercury content and contamination issues, policy makers, manufacturers, and scientists are in agreement over the greater environmental and economic benefits of CFLs. When recycled properly, nearly every component of a fluorescent bulb can be separated and reused – even the mercury.

According to the EPA, electricity from coal-fired power plants is the main source of U.S. mercury emissions. By using CFL bulbs in place of incandescents, we can decrease the demand for coal-fired power and in doing so, significantly reduce the amount of mercury released into the environment.



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