How To Clean Up A Broken CFL

Ask your typical apartment maintenance person what a CFL is and they’ll tell you, why of course it’s the Canadian Football League, where undersized football stars go to finish their careers!  While that is true, in the ever more green, sustainable, eco-friendly, low carbon footprint, renewable and recyclable world of business these days, a CFL is actually a compact fluorescent lightbulb.

CFL’s were one of the first no-brainer “green” methods to be widely adopted by multifamily owner/managers.  They have a decent return on investment due to their lower energy usage and their longer bulb life (compared to the old incandescents).

It was an easy bandwagon to jump on, and many have.  But there is a drawback.  Although these bulbs are relatively tough compared to the older bulbs, if you whack them hard enough with a broom or that new golf club you got for Christmas, they can be broken.  When a CFL is broken they can release a fine white powder which contains a very small amount (typically less than 5 milligrams) of mercury.   

Mercury is a toxic metal element and since “the dose makes the poison”, the lower the body weight of a person being exposed, the more likely that a significant mercury exposure could occur after a CFL break.  A similar hazard exists with long fluorescent tube-type bulb breaks also.  Therefore, babies and small children face the largest risk of exposure immediately after a bulb is broken. 

Low body weight is the also the reason most laws pertaining to lead-based paint target locations where young children, toddlers and infants are likely to be present.  The smaller they are, the less poison it takes to cause an adverse effect.

Overall, the widespread usage of CFL’s should reduce the amount of mercury being released into the atmosphere by coal fired power plants due to the lower demand for electricity.  Burning coal emits mercury into the atmosphere.  Overall, CFL usage should result in a major decrease in the amount of mercury entering our environment.

Risk assessments of CFL and fluorescent bulb breaks have shown that there is actually a very small exposure hazard, but nonetheless a proper cleanup of the area affected is a good idea.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued new guidelines for conducting this cleanup.  It doesn’t require any special equipment and you can honestly tell your residents you are following EPA guidelines.

These guidelines are beneficial to both maintenance staff and to residents.  They include information on where to safely dispose of the material cleaned up and also where in your community you can safely recycle CFL’s that have burnt out.  The bulbs don’t last forever, just longer!  Several large retail chains have free recycling programs for CFL and fluorescent bulbs and the waste from broken bulbs.

Click here for the new EPA guidelines for CFL cleanup and….be careful out there!