Is the mercury in light bulbs a health hazard and should you be concerned about it? We usually talk about this as an environmental issue since altogether we do use and throw out a lot of light bulbs. But how about your own household – can mercury in light bulbs hurt you or your children?
The quick answer is – not really.
For one, not all light bulbs have mercury in them anyway. The traditional tungsten and filament light bulbs don’t contain mercury and neither do LED light bulbs. Some energy-saving light bulbs do contain a bit of mercury but the total quantity is no more than 4mg per bulb – that’s enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen, not more.
Fluorescent light strips or tubes also contain a bit of mercury but the quantities there are similarly insignificant.
If either of these bulbs breaks, there’s the risk that the mercury inside will spill. If that happens it will usually roll down whatever surface it is on in a small droplet. From there, it will either be smeared accidentally by someone or something, or it will just evaporate. In either of those cases, that small of a quantity doesn’t present any health concerns.
So, in short, broken light bulb mercury poisoning isn’t really an issue.
Theoretically, if a baby or a small pet decides to lick or inhale the mercury droplet. Even in that case, the small quantity we’re talking about should still be harmless but for the smaller bodies of a baby or an animal, you may see some symptoms of mercury poisoning.
What happens if you inhale mercury from a light bulb?
The standard symptoms of mercury poisoning include:
- Coughing (including blood on rare occasions)
- Chest pains, tightness, or a burning sensation
- Feeling irritable and nervous
All of those generally require a greater quantity of mercury to be inhaled to occur, however. So, unless your baby is going around breaking energy-saving light bulbs to inhale their mercury like a crack addict – you don’t need to be too worried. The reason we’re concerned about the environmental impact of mercury in certain light bulbs is that with 8 billion people on the planet, that mercury can build up pretty quickly.
How to clean up after a broken mercury light bulb
So, to be extra safe, here’s what to do with a broken light bulb and a mercury spill:
- Get your kids and pets out of the room and ventilate it. If multiple bulbs have been broken you may want to leave the room for 10-15 minutes too.
- Go back in with rubber or plastic gloves and pick up the glass pieces in a plastic bag or container.
- Collect the mercury droplets with a strip of masking tape (use a flashlight to locate the mercury beads as mercury reflects light.
- Put the mercury in the container with the glass pieces.
- Wipe the area of the spill with a damp cloth and put it in the container too.
- Let the room ventilate a bit longer.
- Check your local council for info on how to dispose of the hazardous contents from the light bulb.
And that’s all there is to it. Don’t use a vacuum cleaner, don’t touch the mercury with your bare hands, and don’t throw it in your household trash. Don’t spill it in your sink either – neither of those would be dangerous for your family but they are not great for the environment.