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What Happens If You Inhale Mercury From A Light Bulb

broken light bulb that contained mercury

Did you accidentally inhale mercury from a light bulb? Compact fluorescent light (CFL) or fluorescent light bulbs are popular lighting options used across homes and businesses in America. Although these light bulbs are very common, not many people know that they contain a small amount of mercury. Mercury can be hazardous to your health if ingested or inhaled–especially for long periods of time.

Are CFL bulbs and fluorescent light bulbs the same?

Although CFL bulbs and standard fluorescent light bulbs are very similar, and both contain mercury, the primary difference between the two is their size.

Standard fluorescent light bulbs are tubular (generally 48 to 84 inches in length). You’ll usually find these light bulbs in shops, barns, and garages. Businesses often also use standard fluorescent lights due to their energy efficiency, low cost, and long life.

A stack of fluorescent light bulbs

CFL bulbs are much smaller than standard fluorescent light bulbs. These bulbs fit into standard household light sockets, like table lamps and ceiling fixtures. They are energy-efficient and long-lasting substitutes for incandescent bulbs.

A hand is installing an energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) into a ceiling fixture.

Are fluorescent and CFL bulbs dangerous?

Intact fluorescent light bulbs and CFLs are not dangerous, but most contain small amounts of mercury—typically 4 milligrams or less. Additionally, many modern fluorescent and CFL bulbs have self-contained filaments that prevent mercury from leaking out, even if the bulb breaks. However, broken fluorescent and CFL bulbs without self-contained filaments can put you at risk if not cared for properly. 

When fluorescent and CFL bulbs break, some of the mercury can vaporize into the air, and you can inhale the vapors if you are nearby. Dust particles from broken fluorescent and CFL bulbs can also contain mercury. Given the small amount of mercury in the bulb, symptoms of a poisoning from short term exposure is not likely. Exposure to the skin from brief handling is considered non-toxic because elemental mercury is poorly absorbed through the skin. 

Long-term exposure from improper mercury cleanup can cause health problems. Inhaling these particles can also irritate or damage the lungs, leading to shortness of breath, chest pain, and coughing. Long-term exposure to these particles can result in rare but serious lung diseases. Long-term exposure can even lead to neurological damage, memory loss, headaches, kidney damage, and fertility problems.

Can broken fluorescent and CFL bulbs cause mercury poisoning? What happens if you inhale mercury from a light bulb?

Although there is not enough mercury in one bulb to cause significant harm upon breaking, inhaling too much of it over a long period of time could lead to serious health issues. So you should take caution when handling them.

What to do if a mercury-containing light bulb breaks

Don’t panic! First, make sure any people or animals leave the area. Then, follow these steps:

  1. Open a window or door to ventilate the room and turn off the heating/cooling system if practical.
  2. For hard surfaces, use stiff cardboard to scoop up broken pieces. Then use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining glass or powder. Finally, use a flashlight to help visualize the tiny beads of mercury.
  3. Use wet wipes or wet paper towels to clean hard surfaces and then discard them.
  4. Place all contaminated items in a plastic trash bag, seal them with duct tape, and place them in the outdoor trash or bring them to a disposal site in your area.
  5. Wash your skin well with soap and water after cleanup.
  6. If a spill involves a large volume of mercury or a large surface area, consider using a professional cleaning company that is licensed in environmental mercury cleanup.
  7. Call the Missouri Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. Our specially trained staff can help guide you on what to do and how to stay safe from exposure. 

In addition to what to do when a bulb breaks, here is what NOT to do when a bulb breaks.

What NOT to do if a mercury-containing light bulb breaks

When a light bulb containing mercury breaks, it can be scary. Here are a few things that you should NOT do:

  1. Do NOT use a vacuum or broom to clean the pieces up. Doing so will increase the chances of exposure because more mercury particles will waft into the air.
  2. Do NOT walk around with your shoes in other parts of the house or building if they have come into contact with any of the pieces.
  3. Do NOT wash any clothing or other objects like rugs that have come into contact with mercury in the washing machine.

Questions? Call The Missouri Poison Center

If you come across a broken CFL or standard fluorescent light bulb, do not panic. Call the Missouri Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222, where a specially trained nurse or pharmacist can assist you further. All calls are free and confidential.

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