New Technology Reduces Risk of Mercury Vapor Exposure in Flourescent Lamp Packaging

The popularity of fluorescent lamps and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) is steadily growing in the industrial, commercial and residential markets, due to their sustainability, energy efficiency and federal legislation effectively eliminating the manufacture of incandescent bulbs by 2014. However, they can also be potentially dangerous because of their mercury content. Exposure to mercury vapor, like that found in fluorescent lamps, can be detrimental to handlers’ health—from those involved with handling new bulbs to people storing, packaging and shipping used lamps. It is important to take the necessary precautions when handling, storing or transporting used or broken lamps to protect against any potential harm from released mercury vapor.

Dangers from Mercury

CFLs and fluorescent lamps contain an average of about 4 milligrams of mercury. Broken bulbs can release mercury vapor levels that exceed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) 8-hour permissible exposure limit (PEL) level of 100 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH’s) IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) level of 10,000 ug/m3. Mercury vapor can continue to be released for days after bulbs have broken. The fragility of the bulbs multiples the opportunities for breakage during storage, transport and shipping to a recycler, causing handlers to be at risk of mercury exposure.

Exposure generally occurs when mercury vapors are inhaled. For most consumers and handlers, fluorescent lamps or CFLs present the single greatest risk of mercury exposure in the work place or at home. Exposure to mercury vapor can cause neurological damage to adults, children and fetuses and is considered a toxic chemical since it does not degrade in the environment.

Packaging Efforts

Most packaging currently in use can emit mercury vapor if bulbs inside are broken, prompting recent efforts that have focused on containing the lamp contents and vapor in the storage and shipping container. However, this traditional method does not protect against vapor exposure if the container is opened or leaks with broken lamps inside.

Of the five packaging designs tested in a 2008 study by the University of Minnesota, only one configuration, utilizing a mercury vapor-resistant bag, reduced exposure levels below all acceptable federal and state regulations and guidelines. The design consists of three layers. An outer cardboard box provides structure to the configuration and protects contents from outside elements. A bag located inside the box features a suitable foil material and tight zip seal. This bag contains the mercury vapor and an inner cardboard box that prevents broken glass from puncturing the bag and rendering it ineffective.

Need for Adsorbent

Though some packaging designs can contain mercury vapor from broken lamps inside a foil bag, high levels of vapor can still exist within the package. Mercury vapor exposure can still occur if the package leaks, is perforated by broken bulbs or is opened by handlers. These packages are intended to be used in collecting spent bulbs and thus, a partially filled package may be opened to insert more lamps, putting handlers at risk of mercury exposure. New developments in adsorbent technology demonstrate a method to actually capture the mercury vapor within the container, mitigating the risks of vapor exposure for handlers and consumers of fluorescent lamps and CFLs.

A study by NUCON International, Inc., a world-wide leader in providing gas, vapor and liquid phase adsorption solutions for mercury and other contaminants to the nuclear and other industries, found that within the packaging, if 40 lamps break, vapor levels can range anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 ug/m3. These levels are over 150 to 300 times OSHA’s 8-hour PEL, confirming the need to develop an adsorbent technology that can capture this vapor before it can escape the package.

How it Works

The new technology can capture mercury vapor in the package through adsorption, protecting users from dangerously high vapor levels caused by incidental exposure during the accumulation, storage and transportation of lamps. This carbon-based adsorbent effectively captures mercury vapors inside recycling packages, reducing vapors to levels approaching OSHA’s 8-hour PEL.

NUCON replicated the test methods in the University of Minnesota study, breaking 40 T-8 lamps in a four-foot long package using a mercury vapor containment bag. While the original study focused on measuring mercury vapor levels outside of the package, NUCON’s test methodology was designed to measure mercury vapor levels both inside and outside the package. The initial control tests using no adsorbent yielded extremely high and dangerous vapor readings inside the package. The vapor levels rapidly rose above both the OSHA 8-hour PEL and the NIOSH’s IDLH level.

When an adsorbent was introduced within the packages, vapors found within lamp storage, shipping or recycling containers decreased. Results show the adsorbent significantly reduces the initial vapor readings and then in a short amount of time, rapidly begins to reduce the overall vapor levels. Levels were reduced by nearly 60 percent in only 15 minutes and over 95 percent after 12 hours, according to the NUCON study.

Another significant feature of the adsorbent technology is its overall capacity to adsorb mercury vapors. The testing has shown that the adsorption capacity of the adsorbent is well in excess of the potential mercury vapor that could be released from 100-percent breakage of a full lamp package. Further, in the 40 lamp break tests, only a small percentage of the capacity of the pad was used. This capacity is particularly important due to the fact that lamps release mercury vapors for many days after the initial breakage. While the mercury-specific packaging has been proven to effectively contain high levels of vapor, this added adsorption quality will provide a necessary layer of protection against incidental mercury exposure for generators, transporters and consumers as they handle and recycle used lamps.

Adsorbent Technology Applications

The adsorbent technology has applications in packages for lamp recycling solutions that incorporate the mercury-specific foil bag technology. Sold primarily to businesses, it can become part of a universal waste recycling system for fluorescent lamps, dental waste, batteries and mercury devices.

Additionally, the adsorbent technology has numerous other potential applications. It could be used for consumer recycling packages, along with retailer take-back programs and municipal curb-side pick-up programs. Lamp manufacturers could utilize mercury containment and adsorbent containers in their new lamp packaging and also have it serve as a back-end recycling solution.


To safeguard against mercury exposure, used and broken CFLs must be placed in mercury-specific packages that can contain and adsorb vapor, reducing concentrations that accumulate within packaging to safe levels. By utilizing an adsorbent technology, mercury vapors are greatly reduced and provide safe handling and recycling of fluorescent lamps and CFLs.

About the Author

Mary Beth Schommer is a consultant for VaporLok Products. She recently retired from the UPS after 29 years of service.

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