Fluorescent lamps are a popular lighting option for businesses and consumers that are looking for ways to conserve energy and cut down on wastes. Since mercury - a very useful but very toxic element - is used to conduct the charge in fluorescent lamps, these benefits can come at a significant environmental and health risk.

In a recent University of Minnesota study, various packaging configurations containing fluorescent lamps were put to the test in the scientifically-controlled test chamber shown above.

Alternative lighting options, such as energy-efficient and long-lasting light emitting diodes (LEDs), hold promise for the future. However, LED lighting currently is not feasible for most lighting applications, such as mass indoor lighting in office buildings, due to their significantly higher cost.

With an increasing focus on green solutions brought on by public demand as well as new rules and regulations, the use of fluorescent lamps will continue to grow - especially as governments around the world pass measures to phase out the use of traditional incandescent light bulbs in favor of more efficient lighting alternatives. To minimize the environmental and health risks of mercury vapor released from broken fluorescent lamps, used lamps should be properly packaged, stored, and transported to recycling facilities - where the mercury vapor can be safely extracted.

A Package Designed to Contain Mercury Vapor

A recent study conducted by my research team at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health Sciences, measured the performance of three different types of packaging configurations that are used to store and transport used fluorescent lamps.1

The first package, a single-layer cardboard box, was the least effective in containing mercury vapor from broken fluorescent lamps.

The first package, a single cardboard box, was selected to represent the packages in which new fluorescent lamps are sold. Many customers reuse these packages for storing used lamps and eventually transporting the used lamps for disposal or recycling. In each of ten replicate experiments, each box was loaded with 40 used low-mercury T4 fluorescent lamps and then dropped and shaken in a test chamber until the lamps were broken. In the following six hours, the level of mercury vapor inside the test chamber was measured and recorded. The single-layer box was the least effective in containing mercury vapor of all three groups, with airborne mercury vapor levels in the test chamber exceeding all workplace exposure levels, as defined by state and federal authorities.

Configurations consisting of a layer of cardboard and a plastic bag also did not contain mercury vapor emissions below workplace exposure levels.

The second group of packages enhanced this single cardboard layer with a plastic bag. One box in this category featured an unsealed thin plastic liner, and the other cardboard box included a tape-sealed plastic bag. The third group of packages added a second layer of cardboard to the design, with the bags positioned between the two cardboard layers. This group also contained two package varieties: a double-box with a thicker, tape-sealed plastic bag, and a double box with a foil-plastic laminate bag containing a zip closure. Both of the packages in the third group performed better than the other packaging configurations, but out of all of the configurations, only the final package - the double box with the foil-plastic laminate bag - kept levels in the test chamber below all workplace exposure regulations and guidelines.

A configuration that layered cardboard, a foil-plastic laminate bag with a zip closure, and another layer of cardboard inside the bag was the only package that kept airborne mercury levels in the test chamber below all workplace exposure regulations and guidelines.

This study indicates that all three layers of the last packaging configuration are critical to the effective containment of mercury vapor. The first cardboard layer provides structure to the configuration and protects contents from outside elements. The bag - which should feature a suitable material and tight seal - contains the mercury vapor, and the inner layer of cardboard prevents broken glass from puncturing the bag and rendering it ineffective.

Laws and Regulations

Organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are tasked with the challenge of simultaneously encouraging the use of energy-efficient fluorescent lamps, while also protecting the environment and people from harmful mercury vapor. The EPA permits common carrier shipment to recycling facilities, and the federal Universal Waste Rule requires packaging to be compatible with the contents of lamps, structurally sound and adequate to prevent breakage - but this rule does not specifically address mercury vapor release. In 2005, a provision was added that requires 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.2

The EPA estimates that only 20 to 25 percent of fluorescent lamps are recycled, and some of these lamps still release hazardous quantities of mercury vapor due to the insufficient packaging configurations that they are stored and transported in. Furthermore, the remaining 75 to 80 percent of used fluorescent lamps are put in dumpsters and other trash containers, eventually ending up in landfills—where they will continue to emit mercury into the surrounding environment. While fluorescent lights provide significant advantages over traditional incandescent lights and are more affordable and readily available than LEDs, businesses and consumers must take the initiate to properly dispose of used lamps. Only then will fluorescent lamps truly provide a green lighting solution.


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

Author Bio

Dr. Lisa M. Brosseau, ScD, CIH, has conducted research and published in the areas of respiratory protection, aerosol exposures, hazardous materials, and safety interventions in small businesses. She serves on the editorial review board of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene and is currently the Vice Chair of ACGIH, a globally-recognized organization committed to developing scientific guidelines for workplace safety and health.