Fluorescent lights contain mercury and, per Washington
State regulations, are classified as hazardous waste and
cannot be disposed of in the garbage. Thurston County
residents may dispose of them at
participating retail stores,
WasteMobile events, or through a permitted hazardous
waste disposal company.
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Mercury is a highly toxic element that does not break down. Each year, broken
fluorescent lamps release an estimated 500 pounds of mercury into
Washington's environment. Workers may be exposed to elevated levels of mercury in the vicinity
of newly broken lamps. For additional information, see
Mercury in the atmosphere eventually becomes deposited on the ground and in
water. A 2002 Department of Ecology study found elevated mercury levels in
bass from 70% of lakes sampled, including those from Black Lake in
Fluorescent lamps are still a good environmental and economic choice because
they are energy efficient ― using one-quarter the energy of incandescent lamps
and lasting up to ten times longer. Reducing energy cuts down on power plant
emissions of mercury and other emissions that contribute to global climate
change, acid rain, and smog.
Types of lamps that may contain mercury are:
- Fluorescent bulbs, tubes, and globes: used in businesses, schools,
offices, and stores.
- High-intensity discharge (HID) lamps, including mercury vapor, metal
halide, and high-pressure sodium: used for streetlights, floodlights,
photography, and industrial lighting. Also may contain regulated amount of
lead in the base.
- Compact fluorescent: used in homes and offices.
- Neon lamps (some use mercury and phosphor powder): used as novelties, in lounge, and retail
How to Recycle Lamps
- Remove bulbs from fixtures
- Put lamps in original cartons or boxes supplied by the recycler, with no packing material
- For large quantities of lamps, call your vendor for packing instructions
- Do not tape lamps together
- Store cartons in a dry place
- Date the boxes on the day you begin storing; limit accumulation to one year
- Businesses should save disposal receipts for proof of legal disposal
What to Do If You Break a Lamp
Avoid breathing vapors or
touching broken materials.
Do not vacuum or sweep.
- Open windows to vent vapors for at least 15 minutes.
- Use stiff paper or cardboard to pick up large
- Use duct tape to pick up small pieces and powder.
- Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or wet
- Place all materials in a sealed container.
- Wash your hands.
- Dispose of at
HazoHouse — not in your trash. When
you change a bulb, cover the flooring with a sheet of
Low-mercury or “green” fluorescent lamps are available from several
companies. The lamps have green markings to denote that they passed the U.S.
Federal EPA Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP).
The amount of mercury in lamps varies widely. Philip’s low-mercury 4-foot T8
lamp has only 3.5 milligrams (mg) mercury, but some HID lamps have as much as 90
mg. In 1999, the average mercury content for a typical 4-foot fluorescent tube
was 11.6 grams. The best way to know if you are buying a lamp with low-mercury
content is to ask the vendor. Exposure to the mercury from even the low-mercury
lamps may still be a health concern, so breaking them is not recommended.
Manufacturers can submit data for specific lamp types to the Washington State
Department of Ecology to receive written confirmation that their spent lamps do
not designate as a dangerous waste within the state of Washington. For lamp
models that have received this concurrence, see the section entitled “Lamps that
Do Not Designate as Hazardous Waste” in the
Fluorescent Lights Fact Sheet
New types of tubes may not be compatible with your existing
ballasts. Fluorescent light ballasts manufactured before 1979 may contain PCBs,
which are extremely persistent and toxic. If you need to dispose of your old
ballasts, look for the label “no PCBs.” If they do not have that label they
likely contain PCBs and must be tested for PCBs or disposed of as federally
When replacing fluorescent ballasts or removing old fixtures, wear
chemical-resistant gloves. For handling leaky PCB ballasts, a chemical-resistant
Tyvek® suit and respirator are also recommended; if unavailable, at least wear
rubber gloves and minimize contact. If there has been a fire near light
fixtures, assume that ballasts are leaky. Place leaky ballasts in a thick
plastic bag or bucket to avoid contaminating your work area. Contaminated
clothing should be treated as hazardous waste along with the ballasts. Call a
hazardous waste vendor for disposal options.
Hazardous Waste Update Articles