As incandescent light bulbs go the way of the dinosaur, the more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) are increasingly used in our homes. CFLs use about 75% less energy than standard, incandescent light bulbs. For example, if your lamp takes a regular 60-watt bulb, you only need a 13-watt CFL to get the same amount of light. You can see how this energy savings adds up!
CFL bulbs work the same way as long fluorescent tubes, but they are coiled so that they will fit into regular lamps and fixtures. In fluorescent lights, an electric current is pushed through a tube containing a low-pressure gas and a small amount of mercury vapor, creating invisible ultraviolet light. This invisible ultraviolet light then reacts with a fluorescent coating, which is called phosphor. When all of these things work together, the bulb lights up. Many CFLs are “twisty” in shape, but they can also be found looking very similar to an incandescent bulb or in other shapes.
Each CFL contains a small amount of mercury, which is toxic and can pollute our air, soil, and water. When mercury gets into waterways, fish swallow it as they eat. The mercury stays in the fish’s nervous system. When that fish gets eaten, the mercury goes into the next fish, animal, or even person who eats it. In people, having too much mercury in the body can lead to headaches, changes in vision, shaking, forgetfulness, and other health problems.
It’s easy to avoid all of these risks by recycling burned-out CFL bulbs. Simply put burned-out CFLs into a Ziploc bag or back into the box that held the replacement and mark the bag or box “old” or “burned out.” Then find the location for CFL recycling in your community. Many stores that sell light bulbs, such as Lowes, Home Depot, and Menards, will accept CFLs from customers for recycling. Or, you can search for a nearby recycling location.
If a CFL breaks, the small amount of mercury in a CFL is not enough to hurt you, but it should be cleaned up quickly and handled carefully. Here are instructions for safe handling of broken CFLs.
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