When disposing of burned out “old school” light bulbs, most people weren’t too concerned about whether they broke in the garbage bag. But the stakes have changed with the newer energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs).
That’s because CFLs contain toxic mercury, albeit in small amounts, that can be released if the bulbs break during disposal.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA’s) Energy Star program recommends that these steps be taken in the event that a CFL or fluorescent tube breaks:
Open a window and keep people out of the room for at least 15 minutes. Then use disposal rubber gloves and a piece of stiff paper or cardboard to pick up as many fragments of glass and powder as you can. Use sticky tape to pick up the smallest pieces and then wipe the area with a damp paper towel. Double-bag (in plastic bags) all cleanup materials and seal the bags. Wash your hands after handling the bags. If the bulb breaks and fragments land in carpeting, all but the smallest particles should be gathered on stiff paper or cardboard before the area is vacuumed. Then dispose of the vacuum bag or empty and wipe out the canister if the vacuum is bag-less. Place the vacuum bag and other debris in a doubled plastic bag and then into the trash.
Within the past few years, many Chinese workers who work in plants that make CFLs have been poisoned by mercury exposure. Mercury can cause damage to the nervous system, respiratory system, digestive system and kidneys. High levels of exposure can cause death due to respiratory failure.