How to Dispose of Fluorescent Light Fixtures

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Light fixtures in kitchen (Photo: @Marlene_Stemme via Twenty20)
After you’re removed and replaced a fluorescent light fixture, you are still left with the question of disposal. The answer depends on when the fixture was manufactured. Here’s what you need to know.

How to dispose of fluorescent light fixtures made before 1980

Fluorescent light fixtures manufactured through 1979 usually contain a toxic substance called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). This substance is found in the small capacitor of the ballast, which regulates the electrical current to the bulbs and prolongs their life. PCBs were favored for industrial use because they don’t break down easily.
Unfortunately, that also means that leaked PCBs from fluorescent light fixtures are difficult to remove and can enter the food chain. Dangers of PCBs to humans include:
  • Acne-like skin conditions
  • Anemia
  • Birth anomalies
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Liver damage
  • Loss of memory and learning
  • Stomach issues
  • Thyroid gland injuries
To prevent the inadvertent release of PCBs into the environment, disposal of light fixtures made through 1979 requires extra precautions. This means getting the ballast that contains the PCBs to an approved disposal or storage facility. Contact information for such facilities can be found on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website. To initiate the process, call the facility closest to you for instruction.
In preparing to dispose of fluorescent light fixtures of this nature, examine the ballast, or dark box by the end of one side of the bulb, for signs of leaks. Leakage usually presents itself as an oily residue. If there are leaks, go no further and strictly follow the instructions from your selected disposal or storage facility.
It is advisable to wear heavy plastic or leather gloves for the next part. Remove the entire box by shifting the box out and up from the clips that hold it in. Then, clip the wiring that connects it to the fluorescent light fixture with wire cutters. Seal the ballast box and ship it to the storage or disposal facility following its specific protocols.
Warning: Before removing a fluorescent light fixture of any variety for disposal, make sure the power is switched off.

How to dispose of fluorescent light fixtures made in 1980 or later

While fluorescent light fixtures manufactured in 1980 or later don’t have PCBs, they contain mercury. Every state has different regulations regarding how to dispose of fluorescent light fixtures due to the mercury content.
Mercury is a neurotoxin. Inhalation of mercury is potentially fatal and can cause lung, nerve, and kidney damage. Skin contact with mercury can result in rashes and could even cause toxicity in the kidneys, according to the World Health Organization.
The regulations specific to each state can be found on the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers website. In most states, the disposal of these fixtures should be done through a licensed lamp recycler. The cost of this service is usually only a dollar or two per lamp and provides documentation of proper disposal.
Beyond the federal and state regulations surrounding how to dispose of fluorescent light fixtures, there may also be local regulations. To learn if there are rules specific to your area, contact your local waste collection agency. Oftentimes, that agency can also facilitate the proper disposal of fluorescent light fixtures, which greatly simplifies the process for homeowners and ensures that it is done safely.