The Dark Side of CFLs

Trace amounts of mercury in CFL bulbs pose an environmental concern, particularly when they end up in landfills.

While the world embraces compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) as an energy-efficient alternative to the incandescent bulbs that have reigned supreme for 125 years, a new crop of concerns has arisen about the potential for mercury contamination from the newer bulbs. While each CFL contains only a trace amount of mercury, landfill managers are worried that large numbers of them ending up in their facilities could pose problems for employees, not to mention surrounding communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends switching over to the bulbs for the energy and greenhouse gas emissions savings, but it acknowledges that the newer bulbs pose a contamination problem when they break. The agency’s website,, provides a detailed outline on how to air out a room and eventually dispose of the pieces of a broken CFL so as not to endanger family members or the environment.

Currently only seven U.S. states ban putting CFLs in the regular landfill-bound garbage, and there are still very few CFL recycling centers.

CFL manufacturers are working hard to minimize the amount of mercury in their bulbs while simultaneously ramping up development of other high-efficiency bulbs that do not contain toxic elements (such as light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs and high-efficiency incandescents).

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