With the skyrocketing use of compact fluorescent lights comes a concern about mercury. Each CFL contain about 5 milligrams of mercury, the toxic metal that has caused, among other issues, public health officials in north eastern states to recommend that pregnant woman not eat too much fish. Some people are considering not installing CFLs, despite the significant energy savings and beneficial effect on global warming emissions, for fear of exposure to mercury during use and disposal considerations.
A fact sheet at the Energy Star website compares the amount of mercury in CFLs to other household items that we are all familiar with: "older home thermometers contain 500 milligrams of mercury and many manual thermostats contain up to 3000 milligrams. " In other words, you could install CFLs in your entire house and still not have as much mercury as in the thermometers that we used to put in the mouths of our children.
As for disposal, there is one word: recycle. If you live in Kennebunk, Maine, you can bring CFLs to the Kennebunk Light and Power District offices and they can recycle them for you. Or, many towns have an annual hazardous waste collections day where CFLs can be accepted for recycling. If neither of these options are feasible, then go to the Earth911 website (http://www.earth911.org/) to find other locations. If a bulb breaks, sweep (do not vacuum) the debris, place into a plastic bag, and recycle. There is no significant risk from exposure to such a small amount of mercury.
If you choose to not recycle (and I really hope that you DO recycle your CFLs), you will still be reducing the amount of mercury emitted to the environment. The reduction in power plant emissions is estimated to be more than twice as much as the 5 milligrams of mercury that are released when a CFL is thrown in the trash.
CFLs are a cheap, easy way to reduce your carbon footprint and help to stop global warming and climate change. Though they contain mercury, their benefits far outweigh the risks that they pose.