Cleaning up a broken CFL bulb involves more than just a quick sweep into the trash can. Though compact fluorescent lights are increasingly popular because of their energy efficiency, these CFLs contain a small amount of mercury. When the bulb breaks, that mercury is released into the air as mercury vapor.
Though it's a fairly common element, mercury is linked to a number of health problems, especially brain and nerve damage. It's particularly dangerous for infants and pregnant women, since a developing fetus is highly vulnerable to birth defects caused by exposure to mercury.
And it's not just CFLs that are a hazard: Many other types of light bulbs contain mercury, and need to be carefully cleaned up after breakage. All fluorescent lights -- the kinds that are commonly used in commercial and industrial buildings all over the world -- contain mercury, including linear, U-tube and circular fluorescent tubes.
Other lights that contain mercury include bug zappers, tanning bulbs, black lights, germicidal lights, cold-cathode fluorescent bulbs, metal halide lamps, ceramic metal halide lamps, high-pressure sodium lamps, mercury vapor lamps, and ordinary neon bulbs.
CFL Cleanup: First Steps
Before you begin any cleanup, first have everyone leave the room, including all pets. Make sure they avoid stepping in or near the breakage on the way out. Open as many windows in the room as you possibly can, and shut off the central AC or heating. Shut the door to the room on your way out, and stay out for at least 5 minutes.
After the room is as empty and as isolated as possible, gather the materials you'll need to clean up the broken CFL bulb: stiff paper or cardboard, heavy-duty tape like duct tape or packing tape, damp towels or wet wipes, and a secure jar with a lid or some sealable plastic bags (Ziploc, etc.).
Cleaning Up on Carpeted Surfaces
Scoop up all the larger broken pieces and put them in the jar or plastic bag, making sure not to break or puncture the bag. Use the sticky side of the tape to clean up the smaller pieces of glass and the powder. Put the tape into the jar or bag.
The EPA recommends you avoid vacuuming unless there's still some broken glass in the carpet, because vacuuming could help to spread mercury vapor. If you do vacuum, remember to keep the windows open and the door to the rest of the building closed. Remove the vacuum bag and seal that in a plastic bag, too.
All your cleanup materials should be taken outside and stored in a sealed container. You may need to check with your local government about disposal rules in your area, because some cities and counties require all fluorescent bulbs be taken to a recycling center. If your area has no such requirement, you can probably dispose of the broken CFL bulb with your regular trash.
After you're done cleaning and disposing of the breakage, wash your hands with soap and water, and continue airing out the room for as long as is practical.
CFL Cleanup on Hard Surfaces
On a hard floor or other surface, follow the same steps listed above: Scoop up all the larger broken pieces and put them in the jar or plastic bag, making sure not to break or puncture the bag. Use the sticky side of the tape to clean up the smaller pieces of glass and the powder. Put the tape into the jar or bag.
You can then use the paper towels, rags or wet wipes to clean the whole area, and place the towels or rags in a jar or bag (don't wash and reuse rags after using them to clean up a broken CFL bulb).
Follow the steps above to remove all the breakage from the building. And again, after you're done cleaning and disposing of the breakage, wash your hands with soap and water, and continue airing out the room for as long as is practical.
Didn't Follow These Procedures?
Don't panic: These steps, recommended by the EPA, are precautions that are considered best practices for cleaning up a broken CFL. Though it's an important safety issue, remember that CFLs contain a tiny amount of mercury -- less than 1/100th of the amount in a mercury thermometer -- so you're probably OK.
If, however, you're concerned about health risks from a potential exposure to mercury, consult your doctor or health care provider.
And in the future, you may want to consider other energy-efficient light bulbs, especially in kids' rooms or in area where breakage is likely to occur.