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Toxic Mercury Was All Over My Closet!

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Lisa Sharkey: I opened my closet door the other evening after work and was instantly freaked out.

broken CFL light bulb

What littered the floor of my closet looked like bits of shredded paper that my dog had chewed up. Unfortunately, it was far more threatening, and the cleanup was much more complicated than I had expected. The bits of thin white scraps were actually broken pieces of a compact fluorescent lightbulb that had fallen off of a shelf and shattered all over the closet floor. Normally, with a broken lightbulb, some sweeping up and perhaps a final vacuuming is all that's required. Not so with a CFL, because as I'm sure all of you already know, the bulbs we're all supposed to be screwing into our sockets to save energy and the planet contain highly toxic mercury. So what's a freaked-out person to do?

I went onto the web and googled "broken CFL bulb" and learned that there are some very strict government guidelines for cleaning up and disposing of the residue from these broken bulbs. For starters, you are not allowed to vacuum up the mess, as it could send mercury vapors into the air. Same goes for sweeping. You'll contaminate the broom. Never mind mopping it up, either. And if it gets on your clothing, you can't put your clothing in the washing machine for the same reasons. Mercury, like the planet, gets around. So if you too suffer from this broken bulb syndrome, here's what the government says you need to do. While you're at it, learn more about going green in your own home. By the way, I think I'm switching to candles.

Before Cleanup: Air Out the Room

Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.

Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.

Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

Cleanup Steps for Hard Surfaces

Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with a metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.

Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass pieces and powder.

Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.

Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

Cleanup Steps for Carpeting or Rug

Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.

Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.

If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.

Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.

Cleanup Steps for Clothing, Bedding, etc.

If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away. Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the washing machine and/or pollute sewage.

You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, such as the clothing you are wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.

If shoes come into direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from the bulb, wipe them off with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal.

Disposal of Cleanup Materials

Immediately place all cleanup materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup.

Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing cleanup materials.

Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug: Air Out the Room During and After Vacuuming

The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.

Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.

16 comments so far | Post a comment now
Linda May 7, 2009, 9:34 AM

thanks for the information! I had no idea those bulbs were so toxic if broken. The government website gives good information on how to clean one of those up. It’s always good to know when you have little ones in the house.

ashley May 7, 2009, 12:43 PM

OHMYGOSH!!! I am stunned to hear all of this!! I had no idea they had mercury in them. I have had several break but I had no idea we were supposed to go to such lengths to clean them up. Scary!! Maybe I’ll just stick with regular bulbs!!

angie May 7, 2009, 3:06 PM

I knew that those bulbs were toxic and that is why I don’t use them- if they are SO much better for the envirnment why the heck would they contain such a harmful substance? That is all great and dandy for the people who follow the proper wasting of such a bulb but what about the ones who don’t follow the guidlines where because of lack of knowledge or lack or caring, then what?

RealityCheck May 7, 2009, 4:38 PM

I will never buy a CFL bulb again! I had no idea they were so toxic if broken and I have children. Scary stuff! Thank you for the info!!!

Jill (the other one) May 7, 2009, 10:09 PM

Not only are these bulbs harmful if broken, studies suggest they might trigger migraines and epileptic seizures in those prone to those conditions. Sorry, Earth. I re-use and recycle, I walk and bicycle instead of driving, I use canvas bags at the grocery store, but I won’t use a CFL bulb.

Lisa  May 8, 2009, 12:33 PM

Wow! Very informative! I don’t use these bulbs and now I don’t plan to either! Thanks for the info!

AM  May 8, 2009, 1:35 PM

Before I knew how toxic they were I tried to use CLF bulbs but they wound up being very expensive for me because I have an older home and I don’t know if its the older wiring or what but those bulbs don’t last more than a few months sometimes weeks in my home. So I went back to the old style. I’m thinking about trying those new LED bulbs… but now I’m waiting till more information comes out on them.

Robert Fong-DIaz May 11, 2009, 10:00 PM


CFL bulbs (and all fluorescent bulbs for that matter) have a tiny, tiny amount of mercury in them used as a catalyst to make the bulb glow. The white powder is not mercury. Mercury vapor is toxic, but after you break a cfl bulb, the vapor dissipates pretty quickly. Be careful for sure, but the tiny amount that was in your closet is probably not enough to do any significant harm. If you knock over a palette of them at Home Depot, maybe you should take a few giant steps back.

All in all, fluorescent bulbs are not a big health risk. True, the fact that they contain mercury makes them less “green”. Looks like LED bulbs are the future, but will take a few years to get less expensive. Until then, CFL bulbs are great, and you are doing a lot of good by using them. Remember, coal fired power plants spew out tons of nastier stuff. The less electricity we use, the less junk we (and our children) will breathe.

kathy May 26, 2009, 11:04 AM

Silicone Coated CFL is now available to the consumer. Has been available to the food manufacturing area for years, light bulb glass containment is required by the FDA and USDA.

The environmentally green silicone coating contains the mercury, glass and phosphor, and can be recycled with the bulb. As an added bonus it’s manufactured in the USA!!!!!

Ans1210 December 6, 2010, 6:34 AM

Hm… I have never had such situations… I use hmi bulbs in my night club and hope such can’t happen to them…

Anna December 6, 2010, 6:53 AM

My miele vacuum will remove it all! I regularly renew my stock of miele spares and it works as a brand new one! :)

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Felisa Azzarito January 3, 2011, 1:16 AM

Thank you for the interesting read! Happy New Year and keep up the great work in 2011!

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