New University of Minnesota study documents mercury vapor emission levels and need for safer packaging, storage and transportation of fluorescent lamps


Courtesy of VaporLok Products, LLC

Results of a recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health Sciences suggest that most containers used for storage and transportation of used fluorescent lamps to recycling centers do not provide necessary levels of protection against mercury vapors emitted from broken lamps. The new study, published in the March issue of the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, found that of the five packages tested in the study, just one configuration—consisting of a zip-closure plastic-foil laminate bag layered between two cardboard boxes—minimized exposure levels below acceptable occupational limits, as defined by state and federal regulations and guidelines.

To protect persons that handle fluorescent lamps, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which encourages recycling of these lamps by allowing common carrier shipment to recycling facilities, instructs that packaging should be designed to protect against breakage. The rule, however, doesn't include specific restrictions regarding vapor release.

In 2005, the EPA added a requirement mandating that packaging be designed to prevent mercury from escaping into the environment. While fluorescent lamps aren't included in this rule, the new study points directly at the need for much stricter legislation regarding the release of mercury vapor.

'Legislation is certainly needed to specifically protect both workers and consumers from the risks of mercury vapor that escapes from broken fluorescent lamps,' said Brad J. Buscher, Chairman and CEO of VaporLok Products LLC, a health and safety company headquartered in Mankato, MN. 'To mitigate potential health risks to these people, legislation and regulations should specifically limit the amount of mercury vapor that can be emitted from containers.'

The federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) set a mercury permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 0.1 mg/m3 (8-hr time-weighted average [TWA]).1 Many states further limit mercury vapor PEL to 0.05 mg/m3 (8-hr TWA). Additionally, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) recommends an even lower threshold limit value (TLV; 8-hr TWA) of 0.025 mg/m3.2

University of Minnesota, Associate Professor Lisa Brosseau, one of the authors of the study, recognized that mercury vapor concentrations could exceed occupational exposure levels when working with or near broken bulbs, especially when multiple bulbs are stored or shipped in bulk to recycling facilities.

According to Brosseau, “Based on our measurements of mercury vapor from single broken fluorescent bulbs, we determined the need for additional research to quantify emissions from various types of packaging. The results indicate that emissions from packages not designed to contain mercury vapor represent a real health and safety concern.”

The mercury vapor release study consisted of 10 replicate experiments for each of the following containers:

• Single cardboard box
• Single box with an unsealed thin plastic liner
• Single box with a thicker, tape-sealed plastic bag
• Double box with a thicker, tape-sealed plastic bag
• Double box with a vapor-resistant zip-closure bag between the boxes

There was a significant difference in how effective the five packaging configurations were in containing mercury vapors from broken fluorescent lamps, according to the study. Mercury vapor concentrations in the test chamber with the single cardboard box were higher than the OSHA PEL of 0.1 mg/m3 by nearly 10 times. Concentrations were 40 times higher than the California OSHA PEL and ACGIH TLV of 0.025 mg/m3.

The only package of those tested that kept airborne concentrations below occupational exposure limits was a cardboard box layered with a patent-pending vapor-resistant bag and second cardboard box—designed by VaporLok Products LLC. This packaging configuration lowered mercury vapor concentrations by 99.7 percent compared to the single layer cardboard box. Mercury VaporLok® bags are also used to store, ship and recycle other mercury-containing products including batteries, ballasts, electronic devices and dental wastes.

For an abstract of the study and pdf download, go to this link: To receive an emailed pdf or hard copy of the complete study, please contact Jaclyn Prososki at

The University of Minnesota is currently conducting a similar study utilizing commonly-used compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) to characterize airborne concentrations for both new and used broken CFLs, including studying concentrations from broken CFLs during EPA recommended cleanup procedures.


As economical factors such as rising energy costs as well as environmental concerns including global warming become more predominant factors in consumers' selections, fluorescent lamps have become a preferred lighting option. However, upon breaking, these lamps release mercury vapor that can be detrimental to handlers' health—from those involved with handling new bulbs to people involved with storing, packaging and shipping burned-out lamps.

Mercury vapor, which can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, can cause neurological damage to adults, children and fetuses.3 It is considered a persistent bioaccumulative toxic chemical, since it doesn't degrade in the environment.4 When mercury vapor gets into water, it is converted to methyl mercury and can enter the food chain through fish. Methyl mercury causes damage to the central nervous system and it is also thought to be a possible human carcinogen.5

In the U.S. alone, discarded broken fluorescent lamps release an estimated 1 ton of mercury into the air annually. While a variety of containers are marketed for transportation of fluorescent lamps, many don't provide needed levels of protection against mercury vapor in the occurrence of breakage—a possibility that raises health concerns for anyone involved with handling these lamps.

Using a proven packaging design is vital to ensuring the safety of these persons, as well as for protecting the surrounding environment, especially as fluorescent lighting continues to grow in popularity.

1. Occupational Health and Safety Standards: Air Contaminants. CFR, Part 1910.1000, Title 29, 2007.
2. Documentation of the Threshold Limit Values and Biological Exposure Indices, 7th ed.; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: Cincinnati, OH, 2001.
3. Mercury Fact Sheet; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 1999; available at (accessed October 1, 2007).
4. Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxic (PBT) Chemicals; Final Rule. Fed Regist. 1999, 64, 58666-58753.
5. Mercury Compounds Hazard Summary, 2000. Technology Transfer Network Air Toxics web site; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; available at (accessed November 20, 2007).

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