10/17/2007 08:00 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Bright Ideas: How To Steer Clear Of Mercury If Your Energy-Saving Bulb Breaks

The Compact Flourescent Lightbulb (CFL)--you know, the swirly-doodley one--is perhaps the greatest invention since . . . well . . . the original light bulb. An eco win-win, CFLs not only consume up to 75% less energy than their incandescent siblings, but also last 10 times longer, while saving hundreds--yes, hundreds--on your electricity bill.

Fact: You save about $30 or more in electricity costs over each bulb's lifetime. The average U.S. household has 45 light bulbs; replacing that number of 75-watt incandescent bulbs with CFLs would save $180 per year (Source:

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), if just one million households replaced four traditional bulbs with four CFLs, we'd eliminate 900,000 tons of greenhouse gases. If every American household changed just one light bulb to a CFL, we would save enough power to light more than 2.5 million homes. That's doing far more than taking 3.5 million cars off the road . . . permanently!

To boot, CFLs are beautiful (they look like ice-cream). They fit into three-way bulbs, emit a pleasant, "soft white" glow, and are dimmable . . . bam-chica-wa-wa.

Despite sexiness and environmental excellence, it's important to know that CFLs do contain the harmful neurotoxin, mercury. While it is a small amount (4-5 mg per bulb, about the size of the tip on a ball point pen), you should take a bulb-break seriously by following the EPA's simple guidelines (paraphrased below and published on their website):

1) Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.

2) Carefully scoop fragments and powder with stiff paper, cardboard, or rubber gloves--do not use your bare hands! Duct tape can be used to lift small pieces and powder. Place bits in a sealed plastic bag. Do not use a vacuum or broom. This will only spread toxins.

3) Wipe the area clean with damp paper towel. When done, place the sullied towel in the same plastic bag.

4) Place the first bag in a second sealed plastic bag.

5) Call your local sanitation department for your district's non-hazardous disposal options. If it's after hours, call 1-800-CLEAN-UP or visit Earth911 and enter your zip in the top search engine.

Please don't just throw your bags in the trash. This is lazy and could put your garbage man in danger.

Though mercury is scary, there's no need to get your bulbs in a twist (I'm sorry, but I had to). Should one break, evil will not disperse, whereupon only a priest can exorcise the carpet. You won't need to call Ghostbusters or the National Guard either and you won't have to spend thousands on clean-up...that is a myth.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), individual CFLs don't have enough mercury to "pose a health threat" and contain less mercury than common household items like thermometers (500 mg) and older thermostats (3,000 mg).

The EPA also states that a power plant emits about 10 mg of mercury to produce the electricity needed to run one incandescent bulb. In comparison, a power plant emits only 2.4 mg of mercury to run a CFL bulb for the same amount of time. In other words, and ironically, compact fluorescents actually decrease mercury use.