How to Prevent a Lamp from Breaking

Feb. 1, 2010
Proper packaging of fluorescent lamps can help prevent hazardous mercury vapor emissions.

The handling of fragile yet potentially harmful products, such as mercury vapor-containing fluorescent lamps, creates challenges for companies and consumers alike — especially as awareness of the dangers of mercury vapor increases and more stringent recycling regulations are put in place by local and federal authorities. Since they are more efficient in converting electrical power into visible light than incandescent lamps, fluorescent lamps are widely used in warehouse and retail establishments, as well as in consumers' homes. However, personnel who must handle and transport these lamps should be aware of the various options available to protect against harmful mercury vapor emissions.

Storage and Transport

While mercury is one of the most useful heavy metals found in our everyday lives, it is also one of the most dangerous. When mercury-containing products are carelessly handled or improperly discarded, mercury can contaminate air, soil and water. Mercury additionally becomes a safety concern as it seeps into drinking water and can enter the human food chain through mercury-contaminated fish.

To minimize health, safety and environmental risks, mercury-containing products such as fluorescent lamps should be properly recycled after use. However, mercury can also escape from fluorescent lamps during packaging, storage and transportation to recycling facilities. In fact, a recent study conducted at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health suggests that most containers used for storage and transportation of used fluorescent lamps to recycling centers do not sufficiently prevent the release of mercury vapor from broken lamps.1

This study measured the performance of five different packages in three categories of commercially available containers employed for storage and transport of used fluorescent lamps. The first configuration was a single cardboard box, much like the packages new fluorescent lamps are sold in that are often reused as disposal packages. The second category included single boxes paired with a plastic bag — with one box from this group featuring an unsealed, thin plastic liner and the other a tape-sealed plastic bag. The third group of boxes consisted of a double-box design with a bag positioned between the two cardboard layers. One of these double-box designs used a thicker, tape-sealed plastic bag, and the second featured a foil-plastic laminate bag with a zip closure.

Each test package was loaded with 40 used fluorescent lamps , which were then broken by dropping and shaking the package inside a test chamber. Researchers then measured the level of mercury vapor inside the chamber for a six-hour period. The single layer cardboard box performed the worst in containing mercury vapor. While the two double-box designs performed better than the other configurations, only the double box with the foil-plastic laminate bag minimized airborne mercury vapor levels below all current federal and state workplace exposure regulations and guidelines.

Researchers concluded that each of the three layers performs a specific function. The inner cardboard layer prevents the broken glass from puncturing the bag, which contains the vapor. The outer box serves as a protective layer for all contents and also provides structure to the configuration. Additional, unpublished research — that tested the mercury vapor containment abilities of packages with used CFLs — supports this conclusion. Packages must contain all three of the layers described above to effectively contain mercury vapor emissions.

Disposal Guidelines

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encourages fluorescent lamp recycling by permitting common carrier shipment to recycling facilities. Lamps were first added to the federal Universal Waste Rule in 1999. The rule required lamp packaging to be compatible with the contents of the lamps, structurally sound and adequate to prevent breakage. While this rule stated that packages should show no leakage, spillage or damage that could cause leakage of mercury, vapor release was not addressed.2

In 2005, the rule was updated to require packaging for mercury-containing products to be “reasonably designed to prevent the escape of mercury into the environment by volatilization or any other means.” However, fluorescent lamps were excluded from this rule.3

Need for Regulations

While using a proven packaging design to transport fluorescent lamps to recycling facilities minimizes serious environmental and health concerns, the fact remains that just 20% to 25% of fluorescent lamps are recycled, according to EPA estimates. These lamps are commonly sent to a recycler in bulk or in pre-paid shipping recycling boxes.

The 75% to 80% of fluorescent lamps that are not recycled usually end up in dumpsters or trash containers and, ultimately, in landfills. One study indicates dumpsters that contain broken fluorescent lamps “strongly and persistently” emit mercury.4 Another study on mercury release from broken fluorescent lamps found that between 17% to 40% of the mercury in broken low-mercury fluorescent lamps is released to the air during the two-week period after breakage.5 Of this mercury, one-third of the release takes place during the first eight hours following breakage, potentially exposing personnel in the vicinity to unsafe levels of mercury vapor. Using this estimated release rate and an estimated 620 million lamps discarded annually in the United States, broken used fluorescent lamps release approximately two to four tons of mercury each year into the environment.

EPA estimates of fluorescent lamp recycling rates are derived from estimates provided by members of the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers (ALMR). There are no federal or state requirements making generators responsible for tracking used lamps, except in Maine. It may be difficult to track use and disposal on a state-by-state level, however. Many manufacturers sell to regional distribution companies and do not have statistics on how many lamps are sold in each state. Specific data for type, sector or location of lamps is proprietary to individual companies that purchase and use lamps, and it is up to each business or consumer to ensure that used lamps are properly disposed of.

The benefits of fluorescent lamps, such as their high energy efficiency and relatively long functional life, have made them a popular and environmentally friendly lighting option. While other energy-efficient choices, such as light emitting diodes (LEDs), are on the horizon, the technology is currently not as feasible and affordable for most businesses and consumers, and it likely will take many years to become a more accessible option. Additionally, with a government-mandated phase-out of incandescent bulbs beginning in January 2012, fluorescent lighting will become a more prominent solution. However, research shows that when used lamps are improperly disposed of, they emit harmful levels of mercury vapor, contaminating the environment and contributing to a critical health and safety issue.

To protect against mercury vapor emissions while still reaping the benefits of fluorescent lights, businesses and individuals should use proven packaging configurations to store and transport used fluorescent lamps to recycling facilities.

Lisa M. Brosseau is an associate professor with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health Sciences. She is also vice chair of American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), an organization committed to developing scientific guidelines for workplace safety and health. She has conducted research and published in the areas of respiratory protection, aerosol exposures, hazardous materials and safety interventions in small businesses.


  1. Glenz, Tracy T., Lisa M. Brosseau and Richard W. Hoffbeck. “Preventing Mercury Vapor Release from Broken Fluorescent Lamps during Shipping.” Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 59 (2009), 266-72.

  2. Modification of the Hazardous Waste Program: Hazardous Waste Lamps; Final Rule. Federal Register 1999, 64, 36466-36490.

  3. Standards for Universal Waste Management: Applicability — Lamps. CFR, Part 273.5, Title 40, 2007.

  4. Lindberg, S.E.; Owens, J. PaMSWaD (Pathways of Mercury in Solid Waste Disposal); Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation (LMER). 1999, 6.

  5. Aucott, Michael, Michael McLinden and Michael Winka. “Release of Mercury from Broken Fluorescent Bulbs.” Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 53 (2003), 143-51.

Recycling Process

At recycling facilities, mercury vapor is safely exhausted and the resultant mercury extracted and reused. The lamps are crushed and the remaining debris is typically contained in large drums and transferred to a retort facility, where the drums are heated to extremely high temperatures to eliminate any remaining mercury. Resultant glass and aluminum can then be further recycled and reused.

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