Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFL) | Illinois Poison Center 

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFL)

Nov 23, 2020
Print This Page

Compact fluorescent light bulbs(CFLs) save more energy and last up to 10 times longer than regular light bulbs.  Since CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, which can be hazardous to one’s health if ingested or inhaled, it is important to handle and dispose of  CFLs correctly.

What is a compact fluorescent light bulb?

A CFL is an energy saving light bulb that fits into a standard light socket. A CFL has a longer life span and uses less energy than regular light bulbs. The life span of a regular light bulb ranges from 700 hours to 1,000 hours, while the life span of a CFL is between 8,000 and 15,000 hours.  A CFL uses about one-fifth to one-quarter of the amount of energy used by a regular light bulb.

What is mercury?

Mercury is a metal that occurs naturally in small amounts in the environment.  Mercury exists as a liquid, solid and gas and can be highly toxic if inhaled.  Mercury can be found in:

  • Thermometers (those with a silver liquid contain mercury, those with a red or blue liquid do not contain mercury)
  • Fluorescent light bulbs
  • Thermostats and barometers
  • Manual blood-pressure devices
  • Some gas meters (mostly meters installed before 1961, which contain mercury-containing regulators)

How much mercury is contained in a CFL?

Manufacturers report that the amount of mercury contained in a CFL bulb is five milligrams, which is less than two ten-thousandths of an ounce.  The mercury can be in the form of an invisible vapor or in a bead the size of the period at the end of this sentence.  The mercury is not released when CFLs are intact and used properly.  A mercury fever thermometer contains about 100 times more mercury than a CFL bulb.

Why should I be concerned about Mercury?

When a CFL or any of the products listed above break, the mercury can spill and create a risk of potential exposure to mercury vapors in the air. Inhaling the vapors is the main cause of mercury poisoning, as the mercury is absorbed by the lungs.  Mercury poisoning can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, headache, increased blood pressure, skin rashes, metallic taste and difficulty in breathing.

Should I use incandescent bulbs that don’t contain mercury instead of CFLs in order to be safe?

The risk of exposure to mercury from the occasional broken CFL bulb is very small.  Using CFLs greatly reduces the amount of mercury in the air by reducing the amount of electricity that power companies need to light a standard bulb. 

How should I dispose of a CFL?

CFLs should not be in household trash since they contain mercury.  CFLs should be sealed in a plastic bag and taken to a recycling site near you.  To find a recycling center near you that accepts CFLs, visit

How should I clean up a broken CFL?

Fluorescent light bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. The EPA recommends the following clean-up and disposal guidelines:

1. Open a window and leave the room (restrict access) for at least 15 minutes.

2. Remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner.

  • o Wear disposable rubber gloves, if available (do not use your bare hands).
  • o Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard.
  • o Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe. 
  • o Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.


3. Place all cleanup materials in a plastic bag and seal it.

  • If your state permits you to put used or broken fluorescent light bulbs in the garbage, seal the bulb in twp plastic bags and put into the outside trash (if no other disposal or recycling options are available).
  • Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.

4. The first time you vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag once done cleaning the area (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag and/or vacuum debris, as well as the cleaning materials, in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal. 

For more information on mercury spills, disposal and site cleanup go to

For more information on CFLs, recycling and mercury, visit: Call 1-800-Clean-Up (re: Household Hazardous Waste) (For a variety of free poison prevention educational materials and online Poison Prevention Educator Training Course) 

Bookmark and Share