CFL Analysis – Mercury

Mercury & health

Although the European Commission does not regard it as an immediate risk to the average user, CFLs contain small amounts of mercury and this is a risk, if lamps are broken and mercury escapes into the air and is inhaled (since mercury vapourises at room temperature). Swedish environmental expert Minna Gillberg, adviser to Commissioner Margot Wallström, says all CFL bulbs should be marked with a skull-&-bones label to increase awareness among consumers. [1]

Although the risk of breaking a CFL at home is probably not overwhelmingly huge if people are informed of the risk and take care not to place them in luminaires that are easily knocked over, and though the amount of mercury each bulb contains usually is minute and decreasing with age, even small amounts of mercury vapour may be harmful to inhale, especially for children, pregnant women and sensitive people. Therefore both manufacturers and various national health protection agencies have issued safety instructions in case of CFL (or mercury thermometer) breakage. [2, 3, 4]

How should I deal with a broken CFL?

In the event of an accidental breakage of a CFL, normal good housekeeping is required.

1. Take care to prevent injury from broken glass.

2. Vacate the room and keep children and pets out of the affected area. Shut off central air conditioning system, if you have one.

3. Ventilate the room by opening the windows for at least 15 minutes before clean up.

4. Do not use a vacuum cleaner, but clean up using rubber gloves and aim to avoid creating and inhaling airborne dust as much as possible.

5. On hard surfaces sweep up all particles and glass fragments with stiff cardboard and place everything, including the cardboard, in a plastic bag. Wipe the area with a damp cloth and then add that to the bag. Household cleaning products should be avoided during clean up despite the very small amount of mercury involved. See the next section for cleaning carpeted surfaces.

6. Use sticky tape to pick up small residual CFL pieces or powder from soft furnishings and then add that to the bag.

7. The plastic bag should be reasonably sturdy and needs to be sealed, but it does not need to be air tight. The sealed plastic bag should be double-bagged to minimise cuts from broken glass. [3]

If you’re a U.S. citizen, you can always order a Philips Spill-kit for ‘only’ $100.00… 😉

“Offers Customers the tools to handle the clean up of broken mercury containing lamps. The materials may be placed in a sealed plastic bag and sent to EPSI in the standard EPSI-PAK lamp recycle box. Kit includes a pail containing training video, safety data sheets, instructions, guidelines for clean-up, mercury chemical information, gloves, scraper, brush, pan, dust mask, safety goggles, sponge pads, plastic sealable bags and large plastic bags.”

Update: Unfortunately, the Maine DEP found when testing that plastic bags are not enough to contain the mercury, not even air tight plastic containers. See my newer post Mercury Problem Worse Than Suspected.

CFL mercury may also constitute a health hazard if thrown away with household garbage or in glass recycling containers:

“‘The problem with the bulbs is that they’ll break before they get to the landfill. They’ll break in containers, or they’ll break in a dumpster or they’ll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens,’ says John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, the trade group for the people who handle trash and recycling. Skinner says when bulbs break near homes, they can contaminate the soil.” [5]

Mercury & coal

The European Commission, however, continues to defend the CFL despite its mercury content, using one of the oldest CFL lobby arguments in the book:

“Indeed the decrease of mercury emissions resulting from energy savings (electricity generation in power plants has its own mercury emissions) outweighs the need for mercury in the lamps.”

That the anti-lightbulb campaign in early 1990s came up with the idea to blame powerplant emissions on the lightbulb in order to get around the uncomfortable fact that FL and CFL contain mercury, is not as surprising as the fact that so many keep regurgitating this argument without ever stopping to consider the blatant flaws in it!

One eloquent exception is Dr Peter Thornes:

“This is based on North American studies, crucially making various assumptions:

“1. That most power is derived from coal. It is about 1/3 in the UK, for example, 1/5 in Ireland, and of course substantially less (and decreasing) in many countries. As an example, the US Government EPA 2002 5-year comparison diagram, variations of which are often used by ban proponents, assumes all power comes from coal, concluding that in such situations CFLs are better.”

“2. That emissions remains at the fixed levels. Power station mercury release has for a long time been treatable by using wet scrubbers (chemical, not human, I hasten to add), in combination with recently cheaper and more effective injection and photochemical techniques.”

“If and where power station mercury release is a problem, ecological warriors might want to do something about it, rather than just use it as an excuse to ban light bulbs. In a nutshell:

“1. What comes out of ever decreasing coal power stations chimneys can be dealt with: we know where the problem sources are and we can treat them with ever increasing efficiency at lower costs.

“2. Compare that with scattered broken lights on all the dump sites, we do not know where the broken lights are, and we can’t do anything about them.” [6]

Danish LCA study:

Update 13 Sept (copied from the LCA page): For those who still believe that incandescent bulbs “cause more mercury emissions via coal plants”, please understand that it really is nothing but a cheap PR trick which seems to originate from the pro-CFL/anti-lightbulb lobby organisation IAEEL 1993, and based alternately on:

I. U.S. conditions in which, at that time, 59% of electricity production came from coal. June 2008 it was 48,5% and decreasing. [7]

II. A Danish ‘study’ (= calculation excercise) from 1991 [8], based on an electricity production from coal assumed at 95% (as was the case in Denmark at that time – the highest in Europe!) [9]. According to EuroStat, the EU share of coal used in electricity production was 39% in 1991 and has since decreased to 29% in 2006 (though varying widely between countries, many use no coal at all). [12]

Mercury in China and India

Also note that there are both automated and non-automated factories in China. In the small, non-automated factories, workers distribute the mercury and phosphors into each CFL by hand! Besides the risk of easily exceeding the specified limits, mercury vapourises at room temperature [13] and Chinese factories are not exactly known for issuing protective gear to factory workers. How ‘green’ is it to poison Chinese labourers and create more toxic waste?

Edit: A May 2009 Times Online article, ‘Green’ lightbulbs poison workers, confirms this information:

“In southern China, compact fluorescent lightbulbs destined for western consumers are being made in factories that range from high-tech multinational operations to sweat-shops, with widely varying standards of health and safety.” [14]

As I pointed out above, hand-dripping risks more mercury being injected into each CFL than the specified limit. VITO, the consultant firm hired by the European Commission to do the preparatory study before the ban, found this procedure to be the likely explanation for the widely varying mercury content in sampled CFLs:

“VITO performed a control on the mercury content of a limited sample CFLi’s, currently available on the market. The control was made by atomic fluorescence spectrometry, conform CMA 2/I/B.3.” (Sampe 1: 1.8mg; sample 2: 1.1mg; sample 3: 6.4mg; sample 4: 3.5mg, sample 5: 0.28mg.) “It must be stated that sample #3 significantly exceeded the maximum allowed mercury content. This is probably caused by the cheap but inaccurate method of mercury filling (drip filling) that seems to be very common in most small far eastern production plants.” [15]

I also warned that this manual dripping will poison workers, as mercury vapourises at room temperature (+20 degrees Celsius). Now this is exactly what has happened!

“Large numbers of Chinese workers have been poisoned by mercury, which forms part of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs.” [14]

Also, mercury mines in China are being reopened to meet the increased Western demand for CFLs!

“A surge in foreign demand, set off by a European Union directive making these bulbs compulsory within three years, has also led to the reopening of mercury mines that have ruined the environment.” [14]

As the article is no longer available on the original site, here is a copy of the full text:

“Green” lightbulbs poison workers

By Michael Sheridan, Foshan |, May 2009

Hundreds of factory staff are being made ill by mercury used in bulbs destined for the West.

When British consumers are compelled to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs from 2012, they will save up to 5m tons of carbon dioxide a year from being pumped into the atmosphere. In China, however, a heavy environmental price is being paid for the production of “green” lightbulbs in cost-cutting factories.

Large numbers of Chinese workers have been poisoned by mercury, which forms part of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs. A surge in foreign demand, set off by a European Union directive making these bulbs compulsory within three years, has also led to the reopening of mercury mines that have ruined the environment.

Doctors, regulators, lawyers and courts in China – which supplies two thirds of the compact fluorescent bulbs sold in Britain – are increasingly alert to the potential impacts on public health of an industry that promotes itself as a friend of the earth but depends on highly toxic mercury.

Making the bulbs requires workers to handle mercury in either solid or liquid form because a small amount of the metal is put into each bulb to start the chemical reaction that creates light.

Mercury is recognised as a health hazard by authorities worldwide because its accumulation in the body can damage the nervous system, lungs and kidneys, posing a particular threat to babies in the womb and young children.

The risks are illustrated by guidance from the British government, which says that if a compact fluorescent lightbulb is broken in the home, the room should be cleared for 15 minutes because of the danger of inhaling mercury vapour.

Documents issued by the Chinese health ministry, instructions to doctors and occu-pational health propaganda all describe mercury poisoning in lighting factories as a growing public health concern.

“Pregnant women and mothers who are breastfeeding must not be allowed to work in a unit where mercury is present,” states one official rulebook.

In southern China, compact fluorescent lightbulbs destined for western consumers are being made in factories that range from high-tech multina-tional operations to sweat-shops, with widely varying standards of health and safety.

Tests on hundreds of employees have found dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies and many have required hospital treatment, according to interviews with workers, doctors and local health officials in the cities of Foshan and Guangzhou.

Dozens of workers who were interviewed on condition of anonymity described living with the fear of mercury poisoning. They gave detailed accounts of medical tests that found numerous workers had dangerous levels of the toxin in their urine.

“In tests, the mercury content in my blood and urine exceeded the standard but I was not sent to hospital because the managers said I was strong and the mercury would be decontaminated by my immune system,” said one young female employee, who provided her identity card.

“Two of my friends were sent to hospital for one month,” she added, giving their names also.

“If they asked me to work inside the mercury workshop I wouldn’t do it, no matter how much they paid,” said another young male worker.

Doctors at two regional health centres said they had received patients in the past from the Foshan factory of Osram, a big manufacturer serving the British market.

However, the company said in a statement that the latest tests on its staff had found nobody with elevated mercury levels. It added that local authorities had provided documents in 2007 and 2008 to certify the factory met the required environmental standards.

Osram said it used the latest technology employing solid mercury to maintain high standards of industrial hygiene equivalent to those in Germany. Labour lawyers said Osram, as a responsible multi-national company, was probably the best employer in a hazardous sector and conditions at Chinese-owned factories were often far worse.

A survey of published specialist literature and reports by state media shows hundreds of workers at Chinese-owned factories have been poisoned by mercury over the past decade.

In one case, Foshan city officials intervened to order medical tests on workers at the Nanhai Feiyang lighting factory after receiving a petition alleging dangerous conditions, according to a report in the Nanfang Daily newspaper. The tests found 68 out of 72 workers were so badly poisoned they required hospitalisation.

A specialist medical journal, published by the health ministry, describes another compact fluorescent lightbulb factory in Jinzhou, in central China, where 121 out of 123 employees had excessive mercury levels. One man’s level was 150 times the accepted standard.

The same journal identified a compact fluorescent lightbulb factory in Anyang, eastern China, where 35% of workers suffered mercury poisoning, and industrial discharge containing the toxin went straight into the water supply.

It also reported a survey of 18 lightbulb factories near Shanghai, which found that exposure levels to mercury were higher for workers making the new compact fluorescent lightbulbs than for other lights containing the metal.

In China, people have been aware of the element’s toxic properties for more than 2,000 years because legend has it that the first emperor, Qin, died in 210BC after eating a pill of mercury and jade he thought would grant him eternal life.

However, the scale of the public health problems in recent times caused by mercury mining and by the metal’s role in industrial pollution is beginning to emerge only with the growth of a civil society in China and the appearance of lawyers prepared to take on powerful local governments and companies.

A court in Beijing has just broken new ground in industrial injuries law by agreeing to hear a case unrelated to lightbulbs but filed by a plaintiff who is seeking £375,000 in compensation for acute mercury poisoning that he claims destroyed his digestive system.

The potential for litigation may be greatest in the ruined mountain landscape of Guizhou province in the southwest, where mercury has been mined for centuries. The land is scarred and many of the people have left.

Until recently, the conditions were medieval. Miners hewed chunks of rock veined with cinnabar, the main commercial source of mercury. They inhaled toxic dust and vapours as the material seethed in primitive cauldrons to extract the mercury. Nobody wore a mask or protective clothing.

“Our forefathers had been mining for mercury since the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644] and in olden days there was no pollution from such small mines,” said a 72-year-old farmer, named Shen.

“But in modern times thousands of miners came to our land, dug it out and poured chemicals to wash away the waste. Our water buffaloes grew stunted from drinking the water and our crops turned grey. Our people fell sick and didn’t live long. Anybody who could do has left.”

The government shut all the big mercury mining operations in the region in recent years in response to a fall in global mercury prices and concern over dead rivers, poisoned fields and ailing inhabitants.

But The Sunday Times found that in this remote corner of a poverty-stricken province, the European demand for mercury had brought the miners back.

A Chinese entrepreneur, Zhao Yingquan, has paid £1.5m for the rights to an old state-run mine. The Luo Xi mining company used thousands of prisoners to carve out its first shaft and tunnels in the 1950s.

“We’re in the last stages of preparing the mine to start operations again in the second half of this year,” said a manager at the site, named Su.

At Tongren, a town where mercury was processed for sale, an old worker spoke of the days when locals slaved day and night to extract the precious trickles of silvery metal.

“I worked for 40 years in a mine and now my body is full of sickness and my lungs are finished,” he said.

Additional reporting: Sara Hashash

And India’s lighting industry, for example, already uses 56 tons of mercury per year. If forced to increase the use of FL/CFL from current 10% to 100%, that will be 560 tons! [16]

This is truly alarming, considering the fact that one teaspoon of mercury is enough to poison a medium-sized lake!

Once you’ve opened Pandora’s box and let the mercury out, there is no way of putting it back in again; it will just keep circulating and climb its way up the food chain. Thus, focus should be on the direct sources of mercury: fluorescent light and fossil fuels.

Stop mercury emissions it at the source before its too late! 

Ban CFLs

In my opinion, only FL tubes, CFLs and HID lights used professionally should be exempt from the EU mercury ban, as most factories, offices and shops already have well established routines for recycling tubes and lamps correctly and especially linear fluorescent tubes tend to be returned as they don’t fit in standard trash cans.

To put such a burden on private individuals, especially in developing countries who usually already have enough to worry about without needing the extra hassle of safely deposing burned-out bulbs, can certainly not be called a wise and responsible decision.


1. Nyhetskanalen: “Expert varnar för lågenergilampor”
2. U.S. NPA: Mercury – Spills, Disposal and Site Cleanup
3. U.K Health Protection Agency: Fact sheet on mercury and CFLs
4. Swedish Chemical Inspection Agency: Kvicksilver i lågenergilampor och lysrör
5. “CFL Bulbs Have One Hitch: Toxic Mercury”
6. New Electric Politics – Environment
7. Mercury: A Broader Perspective, IAEEL Newsletter 3/93
8. Life Cycle Analysis of Integral Compact Fluorescent Lamps, 1991
(now removed, local copy: IAEEL – Danish Life Cycle Analysis)
9. EIA: Electric Power Monthly, September 2009
10. More on mercury, IAEEL Newsletter 1/94
11. Lot 19: Domestic Lighting Part 1, Chapter 4
12. Eurostat: Panorama of Energy 2007
13. Mercury Waste Solutions
14. Times online: “‘Green’ lightbulbs poison workers”
15. Lot 19: Domestic Lighting Part 1, Chapter 4
16. “Think before you make the switch to CFL!”



  1. September 2, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    […] through other Market Transformation Programmes such as the Swedish one by STEM (see CFL Analysis – Mercury for more details, references and a pdf copy of the Danish […]

  2. September 2, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    […] through other Market Transformation Programmes such as the Swedish one by STEM (see CFL Analysis – Mercury for more details, references and a pdf copy of the Danish […]

  3. December 21, 2012 at 1:22 am

    […] often reachable only by car, instead often contaminating other recycling materials); and risk of mercury contamination of one’s home if accidentally […]

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