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Mercury in Compact Fluorescent Lamps

2. How could mercury released from a broken CFL affect health?

  • 2.1 How can inhaling or swallowing mercury affect health?
  • 2.2 Does the amount of mercury released by a broken CFL affect health?

2.1 How can inhaling or swallowing mercury affect health?

If mercury is swallowed less than a thousandth is absorbed by the body and most of it is eliminated, mainly through the urine and faeces. Still, swallowing a high concentration of mercury on the short term can lead to severe harmful and even life-threatening effects.

When inhaled, most of the mercury vapours are absorbed by the lungs. The parts of the body most affected by mercury inhalation are the kidneys and the central nervous system.

People who have accidentally inhaled relatively large quantities of vapours – for instance at certain workplaces – often show inflammation of the lungs, kidney damage, gastroenteritis, restlessness and shaking.

Workers who are exposed regularly to mercury vapours (at levels exceeding German maximum limits for short term exposure at the work place) run an increased risk to develop problems with their central nervous system. Long-term exposure to levels of mercury which are about one quarter of the limit allowed in the workplace, can still harm the kidneys and cause subtle effects on the central nervous system such as memory loss, sleeping problems, anger, fatigue and trembling of the hands.

Young children and the developing are growing and developing quickly so they are particularly vulnerable to mercury. Children exposed to mercury vapours can develop breathing difficulties, swelling and redness of the hands and feet, and pealing pink skin at the tips of fingers and toes. More...

2.2 Does the amount of mercury released by a broken CFL affect health?

When the tube of a fluorescent light bulb breaks, the mercury vapour inside is released into the air. In an average room, the amount of vapour could briefly be well above the limits allowed in the general environment, and could exceed the levels allowed in the workplace. However, these limits are designed to protect adults who are exposed to such levels regularly during a 40-year work life, so they are not applicable for a very short-term exposure. Most of the mercury released from the CFL turns liquid very quickly so, shortly after the breakage, the level of mercury vapour becomes too low to cause any harm to adults, even those who are particularly sensitive.

Children breathe in more air in proportion to their size than adults and tend to be more active, so children could be exposed to comparatively higher levels of mercury than adults.

The amount of mercury in the air is not the only important consideration. The spilt mercury that has turned to liquid can stick to surfaces and dust, particularly if the room is not aired sufficiently or cleaned up thoroughly. This is particularly relevant for young children because they bring their fingers and objects to their mouth and may thus swallow contaminated dust.

At present there are no estimates on the amount of mercury that children are likely to swallow after a lamp has broken and the SCHER recommends that this research be carried out and that customers be given instructions on how to deal with a CFL breakage.

The amount of mercury in the air after a compact fluorescent lamp breaks is relatively high initially but is not enough to cause harm. The released mercury vapour turns quickly into a liquid and the level of mercury in the air decreases very rapidly so it is unlikely that broken CFLs pose any risk to the health of adults.

In principle, a foetus can be exposed to mercury through its mother but the amount of mercury that can cross over from the mother’s blood is very limited so the risk of broken CFLs to the foetus is negligible.

At present, there is no data on how much mercury children could take in through swallowing mercury-containing dust or licking contaminated surfaces so it is impossible to determine the risk that broken CFLs pose to children. More...


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