It's not big deal when a light bulb breaks. Albeit while talking about tubular fluorescent light bulbs, things can take a very serious turn, mostly because these types of light sources contain small amounts of mercury. If the glass tube is broken, then the mercury can contaminate the environment, not a very good perspective considering that mercury is highly toxic.
In fluorescent tubes, mercury is used in vapor or powder state, in order to convert electric energy into ultraviolet light, which is then converted into visible light by a fluorescent substance.
Fluorescent tubes may contain up to five milligrams of mercury, a very small quantity, however still extremely harmful for the brains of children. On the other hand, other devices, such as thermometers or thermostatic switches, could contain as much as 3,000 milligrams of mercury.
The problem is that mercury has such unique properties, that most of the time it cannot be replaced with another chemical element or substance, but, if poisoned by the mercury contained inside a fluorescent tube for example, one may suffer severe weight loss and rashes.
"Any problems at all frequently are handled for the most part by quickly ventilating the room. Get all the people and pets out of the room for 15 minutes and let the room air out. If you have a central heating system or an HVAC system, you don't want it sucking the fumes around, so shut that down," says Jim Berlow of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Hazardous Waste Minimization and Management Division.
If in your house a fluorescent tube breaks, the first thing to do is not to touch the mercury powder, but pick up the shattered glass, preferably with something to avoid direct contact, then wipe the heavy metal with a wet cloth and put it in a sealed container. Brooms and vacuums should be avoided at all times, since they spread the mercury even more.
Another concern is that, although fluorescent tubes are 100 percent recyclable, only about 2 percent ever pass through a recycling stage, the other reaching the landfills.
"Our first preference is not to see them go into landfills. Recycling really closes the loop on this as best we can right now. But, on the other hand, we also don't see huge risks from them going into landfills, either. Probably the most important thing that people need to connect with compact fluorescents is that they save significant quantities of energy. We're talking about two thirds to three quarters of the energy associated with lighting being reduced," said Berlow.
LEDs are promising to replace the fluorescent mercury tubes in a very close future. Not only that LEDs are very clean, but they are also much more efficient than traditional light bulbs or even fluorescent tubes. However, "they currently fall far short in the overall efficiency/color/cost trade-off," says James Dakin, senior consulting engineer at GE Lighting. Albeit as long as fluorescent tubes are around, the imminent danger posed by mercury still remains, because mercury cannot be replaced by an equally efficient clean substance.