Fluorescent lamps contain mercury, but the amount of mercury each contains has been drastically reduced, to single digits of milligrams. The mercury in lamps is elemental mercury, which is less toxic than methylmercury. The principal hazard is from inhaling mercury vapor over a long period of time. Infants are particularly at risk, because of their developmental stage and because they are nearer to the floor, where the concentration of vapor from spilled mercury would be higher.
The amount of mercury in currently-manufactured lamps varies. Generally, the bigger the lamp, the more mercury. Some lamps pass the Federal Toxic Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) test, which sets a standard for waste that can be safely buried in a landfill. If a lamp has passed this test, its label should say so. “Eco-friendly” lamps generally have. The advice below, however, is intended to apply to all fluorescent lamps in homes.
Breaking a lamp when it is lit creates a more serious situation than breaking a cold lamp, because almost all of the mercury in a hot bulb will be in the form of vapor.
1. Get all children and pets out of the area. Do not let them (or yourself) track debris on shoes into other areas.
2. Shut off any room air-conditioner and any forced-air central heating and air conditioning.
3. Open the windows. Get some cross-ventilation. Use fans if available. Air out the room for fifteen minutes, which will reduce your exposure to mercury vapor while you clean up. While the room is being ventilated, get a large glass jar with a metal lid, wide sticky tape (like duct tape or shipping tape), thin stiff cardboard or heavy paper, paper towels and rubber gloves.
4. The object is to get all the debris into the glass jar without spreading it. Pick up the big pieces and put them in the jar. Then use the cardboard to scrape up smaller pieces. Next, use the sticky side of the tape to pick up smaller particles. Finally, use wet paper towel with light pressure to catch even finer bits. All the materials used, cardboard, tape and towels, must go in the jar.
If a glass jar is not available, a heavy plastic bag is better than nothing, but mercury vapor can go through ordinary plastic bags. If you must use a plastic bag, don't keep it around the house. Deliver it to a hazardous waste collection site as soon as possible.
5. Seal and label the jar. At a minimum, label it “waste from broken fluorescent lamp.” Some states and localities have regulations that require specific wording; the people at the local hazardous waste site can help you with that.
6. If the debris fell on carpeting, and you have small children, cut out and discard that section of carpet. Do not burn it.
If the mercury spilled directly on clothing, discard that clothing. Washing it would simply contaminate the washer and dryer.
Do not use a broom. DO NOT USE A VACUUM CLEANER. Any vacuum cleaner that has sucked up elemental mercury should be discarded.
The best study so far of the effect of breaking a fluorescent lamp was done in Maine. Here are their recommendations for cleanup, released in 2008:
Here are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's:
If the label states that the lamp has passed the TCLP test, as far as Federal law is concerned you can dispose of the lamp with ordinary trash. However, some states and localities have stricter requirements.
Currently, solutions are also local. If your area has a household hazardous waste program, you can discard burnt-out lamps through them. Home Depot announced in 2008 that it would accept burnt-out compact fluorescents. Wal-Mart has recycling days in some areas. Ikea and True Value hardware stores also have programs.
State regulations can be accessed through www.lamprecycle.org, Earth911.org, or phone 866 666-6850.
Another disposal problem concerns electromagnetic ballasts made before the 1980s. Sometimes a liquid begins dripping from an old fluorescent fixture. This liquid was used in the ballast as a coolant and insulator, and the ballast has sprung a leak.
The liquid contains polychlorinated biphenols (PCB’s). PCB’s are both toxic and a carcinogen, and must be disposed of as hazardous waste.
Do not get this liquid on your skin. Wear rubber or nitrile gloves. If drips have left a puddle or stain on the floor, clean it up with paper towels. PCB’s are not soluble in water, but they are soluble in oil and petroleum solvents, and it may help to moisten the towels with such a substance. The used towels are, of course, contaminated.
As far as removing and replacing the ballast, the best course is to have it done by a licensed electrician. You may want to hang around and watch, because some treat the PCB’s in a cavalier fashion. If you are going to remove the ballast yourself, be sure to turn off the electricity. Place a plastic bag over your hand, grasp and remove the ballast, and then turn the bag inside out, leaving the ballast inside. Put any contaminated paper towels, etc. you have used in the bag as well. Dispose of the bag as hazardous waste.
Electronic ballasts, which differ from the electromagnetic ballasts described above, should be recycled like other electronic waste.
The EPA’s current assessment of the level at which there is an inhalation hazard from elemental mercury can be found at https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/iris2/chemicalLanding.cfm?substance_nmbr=370
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Last revised: 1 June 2018.