NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 11, 2007

Highly efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are widely touted as environmentally friendly, but their toxic ingredients simply end up in landfills, where the chemicals can leach into soil and water and poison fish and other wildlife, says Andrea Thompson of

The main problem is the mercury contained within the bulbs, explains Thompson:

  • Mercury can be dangerous even in small quantities because it can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, and it damages the central nervous system.
  • Small amounts can also build up in the environment if the bulbs are thrown in the garbage and break or are incinerated.
  • Mercury can enter the food chain and accumulate, for example, when big fish eat smaller fish that contain mercury, as is already the case with tuna and other large fish.

To combat the problem, CFLs need to be taken to a lamp recycler, where the mercury is recovered, processed and sent out to be re-used.  But there is no curbside recycling program for these modern bulbs. To recycle a CFL is an expensive prospect, so local governments that offer free disposal do so at their own cost.  (Recycling businesses that accept the bulbs tend to charge for the service).  As a result, right now only 5 to 10 percent of bulbs are being recycled in California.

"More and more states are starting to ban throwing CFLs away, but on a whole, probably more of these are making it into the trash than are being recycled," said Leonard Robinson, chief deputy director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.  "The two reasons they'll toss them: they either don't know or they don't care."

Source: Andrea Thompson, "Fluorescent Light Bulbs Can Become 'Toxic Time Bombs,", July 10, 2007.


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