The truth about CFL's
There is a lot of doubt and misunderstanding when it comes to compact fluorescent bulbs, or CFL's as they are more commonly known.
We know that CFL's contain mercury but what we didn't know was the amount of mercury that is found in these types of bulbs. As compared to older fluorescent tubes, new CFL bulbs contain less than half that amount. In fact, when operated normally a CFL emits no mercury and hence presents no hazard.
General consensus by manufacturers of CFLs is that - even if broken - the small amount of mercury contained in a single, modern CFL will not cause any personal harm. The cumulative impact of millions of CFLs does however become a more significant issue and could represent a potential risk to the environment. Yet, because of their energy efficiency, energy saving lamps have the greatest overall environmental life-cycle benefit, despite containing mercury.
Clean-up for damaged CFLs
In the case of breakage, the amount of mercury inside an individual lamp is too small to pose a hazard to users. However, although the accidental breakage of a lamp is unlikely to cause any health problems, it is good practice to minimise any unnecessary exposure to mercury, as well as risk of cuts from glass fragments. The following guidelines are therefore recommended in the case of accidental breakage of a CFL:
- Do not allow children or pregnant women to enter the affected area
- Open windows and allow air to circulate to the affected area
- Wear gloves as a precaution also against broken glass
- First sweep up all of the glass fragments and powder (do not vacuum)
- Place in a plastic bag
- Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder
- Wipe the area with a damp paper towel to pick up stray shards of glass or fine particles
- Place the used towel in the plastic bag as well
Safe disposal of CFLs
Concerns regarding responsible disposal of CFLs are valid and lie in concentrations of mercury accumulating in our landfills over time. Expended CFL's should therefore be disposed of properly, in the same manner as other household hazardous waste products like paint, batteries and non-digital thermostats.
In the absence of legislative requirements specific to homeowners and with limited availability of suitable facilities, homeowners should take the precautions they would normally follow when disposing of household hazardous waste and make use of one of the following options for CFL disposal:
- Deliver lamps to any of the retailers offering a take back service for CFLs
- Deliver used lamps to existing electronic waste (eWaste) disposal sites and services - visit www.e-waste.org.za
- Store CFLs in a safe place, in a non- breakable container or plastic bag to contain the bulb in the event of a breakage that might occur. Wrap the bulb in newspaper and place in a plastic bag to reduce the risk of bulb leakage.
- Some Municipalities provide an annual or periodic hazardous waste collection day or event. Typically, CFLs along with any other household hazardous waste such as batteries, oil-based paint or motor oil can be taken to these collection days. Check with your local authority whether these are available in your area.