Fluorescent tubes are more energy-efficient and cost-effective compared to incandescent bulbs and are used in many homes and businesses. They generally last anywhere between 15,000 to 20,000 hours.
Fluorescent lights must be disposed of or recycled properly because they contain mercury. Unlike chemicals that are visible or that emit a strong odor, when mercury is spilled, it forms vapors that are invisible, almost undetectable (except with the use of specialized equipment) and completely odorless. Exposure to mercury, even in small amounts, can cause serious health problems.
The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) provides the following guidelines for fluorescent tube disposal:
These guidelines apply to fluorescent tubes, including low mercury tubes, compact fluorescents, including low mercury lamps as well as:
In case of accidental breakage:
If a larger number of lamps break such as when they are in a case or pallet awaiting disposal, quickly evacuate and ventilate the area, being careful to keep forced-air heating or cooling systems off until 4 hours after clean-up is completed. Contact the local authorities or accredited waste handlers for proper clean-up and fluorescent tubes disposal.
The broken fluorescent tubes can be recycled along with those that remain intact.
The U.S. EPA recommends using the Earth911 database to locate the nearest recycling solution to you. You only need to enter your ZIP code and a list of recycling or household hazardous waste collection centers will be provided.Alternatively, you may call 1-800-CLEAN-UP to access the same information.
The EPA notes that some states and local jurisdictions may have stricter regulations regarding the disposal of fluorescent tubes and other hazardous wastes, including mandated recycling. Your local waste collection agency should be able to tell you about the particulars of such disposal of fluorescent tubes regulations in your state or locality.
To date, the following jurisdictions have laws that regulate mercury-containing products. These include prohibitions on the discarding of mercury-containing fluorescent tubes into landfills and mandate their recycling:
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), fluorescent tubes contain minute amounts of mercury, an average of about four milligrams per glass tubing. This amount can be released into the environment when the glass tubes break and are dangerous because mercury is a known neurotoxin.
In vapor form, it is easily absorbed by the human body through the various mucus membranes and the lungs. It is also a pollutant in bodies of water, which are ingested by fish that are part of the human diet.
The clinical significance of exposure to smaller amounts of mercury is controversial, but these can accumulate, and the results can be severely damaging.
After entering the human body through the respiratory or digestive systems, mercury then breaches the blood-brain barrier and targets the brain. It causes a wide array of health issues but is most pronounced in causing cerebral palsy and other neurocognitive damage in unborn children.
Large-scale releases of mercury have also been the cause public health disasters, including in Iraq and in Japan.
In Iraq, mercury poisoning killed hundreds (possibly thousands) of Iraqis in 1971 through consumption of grain treated with a deadly methylmercury fungicide that was never supposed to make its way into human consumption. Other serious symptoms included vision loss, numbness of the skin and may also cause congenital diseases in unborn babies.
In Japan, mercury-containing wastewaters from the Chisso Corporation contaminated Minamata bay from 1932 to 1968. The mercury accumulated in shellfish and fish which, when eaten by the local population, resulted in mercury poisoning. This came to be known as “Minamata Disease”.
While light-emitting diode (LED) lighting is becoming more and more cost-effective and energy-effective, fluorescent tubes are still used in many homes, offices and businesses.
Once they are spent, they should be disposed of or recycled according to the relevant laws and regulations of the locality. Care should be taken that they do not break, and proper clean-up measures should be taken if they do.
Contact the nearest accredited fluorescent tube recycling facility or local government agency for up to date guidance on procedures, rules, and regulations since these can change from time to time. Remember, fluorescent tubes contain toxic mercury, and care should be taken that we do not risk our and the environment’s health.