Q. The instructions for cleaning up a broken CFL make it sound like the mercury inside them constitutes a serious, health-threatening emergency. Just how great is the health risk from being exposed to mercury this way? – Ella, WA 

A. It’s true that the EPA’s guidelines for cleaning up a broken compact fluorescent light bulb sound kind of scary, but if you do break a CFL, you shouldn’t loose sleep over the resulting (relatively low) exposure to mercury vapor. “There’s virtually no chance of any noticeable, immediate health effects from a short-term, single exposure like that,” says John Balbus, MD, chief health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. Any health effects from mercury poisoning—which include neurological and cognitive disturbances—come from either high level or long-term, cumulative exposures. For the average person, the risk associated with a broken CFL is probably much less than the risk involved in, say, eating a lot of seafood that contains high levels of mercury. That said, it’s worth taking steps to limit mercury exposure on all fronts—especially for children and pregnant women. And though the tone of those guidelines is somewhat alarming, the recommended procedure—in short, let the room air out, carefully clean up the mercury and glass shards, and seal the mess in a Ziploc bag—is really pretty easy to follow.

Bottom line: don’t let any worry about mercury scare you away from using CFLs. Cleaning up broken ones properly isn’t that hard, and potential health risks are negligible.

Story by Sarah Schmidt. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Broken CFLs not a serious health threat
Be careful with them, but short-term exposure to mercury from CFLs won't kill you.