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  Mercury Pollution  l  How to Recycle Lamps  l

Low-Mercury Lamps  l  Ballasts  l  Additional Information

Compact fluorescent bulbFluorescent 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, HazoHouse, semi-annual WasteMobile events, or through a permitted hazardous waste disposal company.

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Mercury Pollution

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.

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 Thurston County.

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 establishments.

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.

  1. Open windows to vent vapors for at least 15 minutes.
  2. Use stiff paper or cardboard to pick up large pieces.
  3. Use duct tape to pick up small pieces and powder.
  4. Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or wet wipe.
  5. Place all materials in a sealed container.
  6. Wash your hands.
  7. Dispose of at HazoHouse — not in your trash. When you change a bulb, cover the flooring with a sheet of plastic.

Low-Mercury Lamps

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 [PDF].


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 regulated waste.

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.

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This page last updated: 04/01/15