Mercury in Compact Fluorescent Lamps
Context - While energy efficient compact fluorescent lamps consume less electricity and lead to less emissions from power plants, they do contain mercury – a hazardous material.
Does the mercury they contain pose a risk to consumers?
Overall, in terms of mercury emissions, are compact fluorescent lamps beneficial to the environment compared to other lamps?
The answers to these questions are a faithful summary of the scientific opinion produced in 2010 by the Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER): "Opinion on Mercury in Certain Energy-saving Light Bulbs" Learn more...
Cogeneris was contracted for The GreenFacts Initiative to prepare this summary by the DG Health and Consumers of the European Commission, which authorised its publication. See this publication on europa.eu
.Text copyright© DG Health and Consumers
of the European Commission.
- Source document:SCHER (2010)
- Summary & Details: GreenFacts
1. Why is mercury tolerated in compact fluorescent light bulbs?
Currently, traditional light bulbs are being phased out in favour of more
energy-efficient lamps, mainly compact fluorescent
lamps (CFLs) that contain some mercury.
Because mercury is a hazardous material, it
is generally banned in electric and electronic equipment, but is exceptionally allowed
in limited quantities for example in compact
At present, it is scientifically and technically impossible to produce
compact fluorescent lamps, but new
technologies can reduce the amount of mercury contained and the authorised content
will be gradually lowered.
The mercury contained cannot escape from the
lamps, except if they break accidentally or if they are discarded with household
waste. If consumers take back their burned-out lamps to collection points, the mercury
content will be recycled and not released to the environment.
2. How could mercury released from a broken CFL affect health?
Studies on exposed workers have shown that inhaling significant amounts of
mercury can lead to
inflammation of the lungs, kidney damage,
gastroenteritis, restlessness and shaking. Swallowing a large dose of mercury can be
fatal. Even exposure to lower levels over a long period of time, can be harmful.
Moreover, children and the foetus are known to be
more vulnerable to mercury.
When a fluorescent lamp breaks, the level of
mercury vapour in the air of the room can briefly
be relatively high, but rapidly the vapour turns to liquid droplets that may stick to
surfaces or dust for some time, particularly if the room is not aired sufficiently and
cleaned thoroughly. Thus mercury could be inhaled
or swallowed by people in the room.
It is very unlikely that such a breakage would pose any health risks to adults and
the risk to a foetus exposed through its mother
Children tend to be more exposed than adults to the
mercury released though the added risk cannot
be estimated at present. Indeed, compared to adults, children breathe in more air for
their size and are more physically active so they would inhale relatively larger
amounts of vapours. Young children also put fingers and objects in their mouth so are
more likely to swallow any droplets of mercury left on surfaces or dust.
[Note: To limit exposure, if a compact fluorescent lamp breaks accidentally, air
the room before cleaning up the lamp with a wet cloth, avoid skin contact with debris and
do not use a vacuum cleaner. Source: FAQ by European Commission on www.e-lumen.eu ]
3. Do mercury emissions due to light bulb use and disposal pose a risk to the environment?
Compared to traditional incandescent bulbs, compact
fluorescent lamps save not only energy but also
mercury emissions during their entire useful
life. This saving in mercury emissions exceeds the amount of mercury they contain and
that they could potentially release if broken or inadequately disposed of.
Indeed, producing electricity in coal-based power plants leads to the release of
mercury to the environment. Since close to a
third of electricity in Europe is produced from coal, using any type of light bulb
contributes to mercury emissions, even if the lamp itself contains no mercury.
To compare mercury emissions from different
bulbs, their light output (in lumens) and lifetime need to be taken into account. For
the same light output, conventional incandescent
lamps lead to the greatest mercury emissions, followed by CFLs and halogen
lamps. In the case of CFLs, most of the mercury is released at the end of the lamp’s
lifetime, if it is discarded with unsorted household waste and not recycled.
Each year, natural events (e.g. volcanic activity, weathering of rocks) and human
activities (e.g. mining, fuel use, dental
amalgams) are responsible for the release of thousands of tons of
mercury into the environment.
In the EU, the estimated mercury emissions
associated with the use and disposal of household lamps (incandescent, halogen
& CFLs combined) are relatively low compared to other sources. It is therefore
considered very unlikely that their contribution to the amount of mercury present in
the environment poses any risk.
However, facilities that collect and recycle lamps could pose a local,
environmental risk if they do not deal appropriately with potential
4. What would be the benefits of increased separate collection of compact fluorescent lamps?
Packaging logo – not in standard waste
Because of their mercury content,
compact fluorescent lamps should
increasingly be recycled and not discarded inappropriately with unsorted waste.
In 2007, only an estimated 20% of them were recycled. While the current use and
disposal of compact fluorescent lamps is
unlikely to pose any environmental risks, increased separate collection and recycling
would further reduce mercury emissions
5. Do environmental benefits of compact fluorescent lamps outweigh potential risks?
Compared to conventional household lamps, compact
fluorescent lamps (CFLs) save energy and result in lower emissions of
greenhouse gases and other pollutants
The EC Scientific Committee on Health and
Environmental Risks (SCHER) is therefore of the
opinion that compact fluorescent lamps
offer a net environmental benefit compared to the other light bulbs considered, even
when mercury content is taken into
On potential risks SCHER concluded:
Compact fluorescent lamps that break
accidentally in a consumer’s home are not expected to pose any health risks to adults
and the risk to a foetus exposed through its
mother is negligible. However, no conclusions can be drawn on the potential risks to
children, namely because there is a lack of data about the possibility of swallowing
any droplets of mercury left on surfaces or dust
(see question 2).
It is very unlikely that the use and disposal of
compact fluorescent lamps poses any risk to
the environment. However, facilities that collect and recycle them could pose a local,
environmental risk if they do not deal appropriately with potential
mercury releases (see question