Shopper's Guide to Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs
December 27, 2008

Shopper's Guide to Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs : Green Lighting Guide

EWG guide to green light bulbsEWG's Green Lighting Guide highlights the best CFLs, lists those Energy Star stamped bulbs that don't meet the most modern standards and helps you use CFL bulbs safely in your home.

The risks of mercury exposure from broken CFL bulbs are real. Cleaning up a shattered CFL bulb requires special precautions. Spent bulbs should be recycled, not tossed in the trash.

Bear in mind that some people are more sensitive than others to the quality and intensity of light. Light from CFLs varies considerably from brand to brand and across wattages. Early generation and cheaper bulbs glow bluish or greenish. The best bulbs are easiest on the eyes because they give off warmer, more natural light. Experiment before committing to a wholesale retrofit of your current home lighting.

CFLs are not appropriate for every place in your home. Follow our Green Lighting Guide to find the best locations for them and to find alternatives for spots where CFLs are inadvisable. If you break a CFL bulb, our clean-up tips will drastically limit your family's exposure.

Green Guide Checklist

START with the fixtures you use most. Choose CFLs for locations where breakage is rare - for instance, for ceiling fixtures rather than table lamps in high traffic areas or clip lamps.

BUY a few test bulbs of several brands and try them out in different areas. With standard use, CFLs will last a long time -- all the more reason to make sure that as you consult the EWG guide, you and your family are comfortable with their quality of light.

BUY CFLs bulbs with the lowest mercury content. The Energy Star logo is not a good indicator of low mercury bulbs. Instead choose from the 7 types EWG research shows have the least mercury:

Brand & bulb line Mercury per bulb Average life span Where to buy
Earthmate Mini-Size Bulbs (13, 15, 20, & 23 Watt) about 1 mg [link] 10,000 hours Energy Federation
Litetronics Neolite (10, 13, 15, 20, & 23 Watt) about 1 mg [link] 10,000 hours
Sylvania Micro-Mini (13, 20, & 23 Watts) less than 1.5 mg  12,000 hours
Sylvania DURA-ONE (reflector bulbs) less than 1.8 mg  15,000 hours Conservation Mart
Feit Ecobulb less than 2.5 mg [link] 8-10,000 hours
MaxLite 1.2-2.5 mg [link] 10,000 hours
Philips with Alto 1.23-2.7 mg [link] 8-10,000 hours blackEnergy

DON'T use CFLs where mercury exposure is unacceptable or cleanup is difficult --- children's rooms, playrooms, recreation rooms, workbenches and near irreplaceable rugs and furniture.

CHOOSE the best bulb for the job. Some CFLs take several minutes before they reach full brightness and efficiency -- a safety risk for hallways/stairs and a nuisance in closets. For these fixtures, look for CFLs with "instant on" technology or consider investing in LED (light emitting diodes) technology.

USE mercury-free bulbs such as LED (light emitting diodes) or halogen energy savers where CFLs aren't ideal or breakages are likely.

Other Green Lighting Choices

Light Emitting Diodes (LED) Use LEDs when low light is enough. For task lights, reading lamps, night lights, candles, flashlights, refrigerators, stoves, closets, Christmas lights and outdoor lighting, these cool, bluish lights are smart and safe. The downside: LED lights cost more than CFL lights, but the cost and performance of these bulbs are improving.

Halogen energy savers Halogen energy saver bulbs are a new product that offers halogen technology’s high light output in a familiar incandescent bulb shape. They contain no mercury but are inefficient and hot, posing fire risks in some locations. These halogens use 30 percent less energy that comparable incandescent bulbs. A 70-watt halogen is as bright as a 100-watt incandescent bulb; a 40-watt halogen is comparable to a 60-watt incandescent bulb.

CFL Pros and Cons

CFLs clearly save energy and money. 

Breaking a CFL bulb releases mercury vapor hazardous to humans and pets. Mercury levels in the air can be quite high for the hour after a bulb breaks. Eventually, most will disperse -- especially if a window is left open. Some mercury vapor will liquefy into tiny beads that settle on surfaces. Wood floors can be cleaned thoroughly and will most likely be mercury-free within 4 days. Carpets and fabric are harder to clean. Low mercury CFLs cut the risks posed by a broken bulb.

Cleaning up broken CFL bulbs

If a bulb breaks in your home, proper clean-up procedures can reduce airborne mercury concentrations by roughly half. Follow EWG's 10 step clean-up checklist. The most critical steps:

  • Keep children and pregnant or nursing women away from the contaminated area.
  • Close doors and open windows to allow volatile mercury vapors to vent outdoors. Stay away for 5 to 15 minutes.
  • Scoop up bulb fragments and use tape to collect tiny particles. Seal the waste in a glass jar with screw-top lid.

Disposing of spent CFL bulbs Each state has its own laws and regulations for recycling or disposing of spent CFL bulbs. Learn about your state's recycling and disposal options at this EPA lightbulb site Also,, a nationwide recycling information site, lists retailers like Ace Hardware, Home Depot and IKEA and municipal programs that accept burnt-out CFLs.