Low-Mercury Lighting

Low-Mercury Lamps: Purchasing and Safety

Replacing your regular incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), saves both energy and money. Fluorescent bulbs use about 75% less energy for the same amount of light and last 10 times longer! However, all fluorescent lamps contain mercury and sometimes lead -- toxic heavy metals that persist in the environment and concentrate in the food chain, particularly in fish.  As of February 9, 2006, all fluorescent and other mercury-containing tubes and bulbs are banned from disposal in your regular trash and must be specially handled. Spent fluorescent lamps and neon signs are considered hazardous waste because of their mercury and lead content.

Lamps with added Mercury include many energy saving tubes and bulbs:

  • fluorescent linear tubes, circular and u-shaped models, and compact bulbs 
  • high-intensity discharge lamps (HIDs, such as mercury vapor, metal halide, and high-pressure sodium)
  • neon signs (particularly those with a blue color).

When buying energy saving tubes and bulbs it is important to:

  1. Buy tubes and bulbs containing less mercury
  2. Choose a long lamplife
  3. Look for lead-free lamps
  4. Know how to safely handle broken tubes and bulbs
  5. Recycle energy saving tubes and bulbs properly at the end of their life

Buy Tubes and Bulbs Containing Less Mercury

Although all fluorescent tubes and bulbs contain mercury, you can look for and purchase low-mercury models (under 5 mg).  Manufacturers must label tubes and bulbs to inform you that these products contain mercury, but unfortunately they are not required to disclose the amount of mercury in each lamp.  Some manufacturers do provide this information on their website.  You can also look for models with a low-mercury designation such as ALTO or ECO.   Many low-mercury tubes and bulbs have green tips or green writing on the lamp.  For more detailed information, click here.

Choose Long Lamplife

Choose tubes and bulbs with the longest lamp-life possible  - at least 24,000 hours for 4-foot linear T8s and 10,000 hours for compact fluorescent lamps. Compact Fluorescent Lamps (sometimes called "CFLs") should also have an Energy Star designation.

Look for Lead-Free

Look for CFLs and other energy saving bulbs that are labeled lead-free. If you are buying a new fixture, choose one that uses high-efficiency T8 lamps (which are 1” in diameter) rather than the older T12 models.  T12s are (larger 1.5 inch in diameter), less efficient, and usually contain more mercury. .

A Note about Vendors: It may be easier to find environmentally preferable lamps that are highly efficient, long-lasting and low-mercury through commercial lighting distributors than at regular hardware stores. Lighting distributors also often offer discounts on large purchases.

Safely Handle Broken Bulbs

Mercury contained in a tube or bulb cannot cause harm unless the lamp breaks, which can occur during transportation, installation, storage or disposal. A small amount of mercury vapor is sealed within the glass tubing, and when a fluorescent bulb breaks, some of this mercury is released as mercury vapor. Mercury is also present in the white phosphor powder which coats the inside of the glass tube.  To minimize your mercury exposure, and safely clean up any breakage read the US EPA’s tips on safe clean-up.

Store all bulb fragments, components, phosphor powder and cleanup materials in a disposable sealed container or ziplock bag.  Take the sealed container to the permanent household hazardous waste collection facility or call 415-330-1405 for a special home pickup.  Broken tubes and lamps cannot be taken to a neighborhood drop off site. 

Recycle Fluorescent Tubes and Bulbs Properly

Click here to learn about fluorescent light and other hazardous waste handling for businesses

Click here to learn about fluorescent light and other hazardous waste handling for residents