A commenter on a previous post asked about potential mercury exposure from broken compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). There are also various stories floating around the internet (such as this one) about the dangers of mercury in CFLs. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to look at how much mercury someone could be exposed to from a broken CFL, and whether there were any risks from that level of exposure.
A CFL typically contains about 4 mg of mercury (according to US EPA); a lot of newer CFLs contain 1 mg or less. I’ll look at the worst-case exposure, so let’s go with 4 mg of mercury in a bulb. In reality that mercury isn’t going to all be in the air right away – the evaporation rate of mercury is about 56 micrograms per hour per square centimetre – but figuring out the rate at which it enters the air requires assumptions about the area covered by the spilled mercury, temperature, pressure, etc. To keep things simple and to make sure I’m considering the absolute worst case, I’ll assume that all of that mercury instantly volatilizes.