Environment

LED bulbs not as eco-friendly as some might think

A new study from the University of California indicates that LED lights contain toxic metals, and should be produced, used and disposed of carefully (Photo: Geoffrey A. Landis)
A new study from the University of California indicates that LED lights contain toxic metals, and should be produced, used and disposed of carefully (Photo: Geoffrey A. Landis)
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A new study from the University of California indicates that LED lights contain toxic metals, and should be produced, used and disposed of carefully (Photo: Geoffrey A. Landis)
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A new study from the University of California indicates that LED lights contain toxic metals, and should be produced, used and disposed of carefully (Photo: Geoffrey A. Landis)

LED light bulbs are becoming increasingly popular with designers and consumers of green technology, as they use less electricity, last longer, and emit more light on a pound-for-pound basis than traditional incandescent bulbs. However, while it may be tempting to look at them as having solved the problem of environmentally-unfriendly lighting, researchers from the University of California would advise against such thinking.

Scientists from UC Irvine and UC Davis pulverized multicolored LED Christmas lights, traffic signal lights, and automobile head and brake lights, allowed residue to leach from them, and then analyzed its chemical content. They discovered that low-intensity red LEDs contained up to eight times the amount of lead allowed under California law, although generally brighter bulbs tended to contain the most contaminants. While white bulbs had a lower lead content than their colored counterparts, they still had high levels of nickel.

Besides the lead and nickel, the bulbs and their associated parts were also found to contain arsenic, copper, and other metals that have been linked to different cancers, neurological damage, kidney disease, hypertension, skin rashes and other illnesses in humans, and to ecological damage in waterways. UC Irvine’s Oladele Ogunseitan said that while breaking a single bulb and breathing its fumes would not automatically cause cancer, it could be the tipping point for an individual regularly exposed to another carcinogen.

The study found that the production, use and disposal of LEDs all present health risks, which the public should be made aware of. It suggests that a special broom, gloves and mask should be used when cleaning up broken bulbs, and that crews attending to car accidents or broken traffic lights should be required to wear protective gear, and treat the material as hazardous waste.

LEDs are currently not classified as toxic, and are disposed of in conventional landfills.

Ogunseitan blames the situation on a lack of proper product testing before LEDs were presented as a more efficient replacement for incandescent bulbs – which are now being phased out around the world. Although a law requiring more stringent testing for such products was scheduled to begin on January 1st in California, it was opposed by industry groups, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put it on hold before leaving office.

“Every day we don't have a law that says you cannot replace an unsafe product with another unsafe product, we're putting people's lives at risk,” said Ogunseitan. “And it's a preventable risk.”

Incandescent bulbs, incidentally, contain very high levels of lead and mercury, while compact fluorescents are also high in mercury.

The UC Irvine and UC Davis team's study appears in the January 2011 issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

26 comments
dreamer.redeemer
What about all the mercury that wouldn\'t enter the environment as a result of reduced energy consumption, given that the major source of mercury pollution are the coal fired power plants which supply around 80% of the electricity in the USA? Even with our unconsciously destructive practices it may be the case that the use of LED bulbs results in a net reduction of pollution. If the goal is to control pollutants, it would make sense to look at the biggest sources of the worst pollutants and worry about them. It\'s been suggested that coal power is the reason our waterways fail to meet EPA standards for mercury content, so maybe we could reduce pollution more effectively by moving to nuclear power.Certainly a more obvious overall solution would be to design everything for sustainability over consumability.
Caimbeul
So, this crap study finally made it to Gizmag, eh?Realize this is a study from health sociologists - not medical doctors or metallurgical scientists. No double blind studies, just conclusions based on fears over the elements in components, not derivative of any Public Health studies.It may get the dept a grant. That\'s about it.
Edgar Walkowsky
Virtually nothing we produce is completely free of toxins. LED bulbs last 10 times as long as flouros and they don\'t contain mercury. They are also much less fragile than other types of lighting. As long as the manufacturers take safeguards and they are disposed of properly, LED\'s are much less hazardous than other forms of artificial lighting.
Daryn O'Shea
The latest LED technology seems to be moving to SMD, or surface mount diodes. They can put out an incredible amount of light without the plastic cylindrical housing/lens we\'re used to seeing. I wonder if these present the same long term dangers.
qwester
The real story is that it is unsafe to grind up electronic devices and analyze their contents. Every integrated circuit in all the tons of these older unrecycled devices contains metals that are now considered toxic. Even sea water is toxic as well as the water in many of the spas and thermal pools around the world (under the rules in place today).
Tim Johnson
Something stinks about this study. I would rather have lead and nickel in our landfills instead of mercury. At lead the earth will know what to do with it. Mercury on the other hand, not so much. I find it ironic that all of these far wack job environmentalists force us to change from a safe light bulb to \"eco friendly\" bulbs that contain undisputable unsafe chemicals. Lets toss something else into the mix. LED\'s are starting to take a strong hold, and are the next progression of light to replace the incandescent. Who paid these crack pots to perform this study, or write this pile of rubbish report of a study? If anything should be taken from this bogus study, LED lights should be sent to the electronic goods recycler.
tmig
LED bulbs not as eco-friendly as some might think - Some scientists are not as bright as you think.
John M
Compact flouro lights contain about 25 mili-grams of MERCURY way less than Mercury discharge lamps which line highways world wide. If they are disposed of wisely I see no big deal over this. The thing is they save large amounts of energy therefore cutting pollution. I do not know about Leds, though they save a lot of energy. A350 watt street light can be replaced with a 35 watt led cluster. At approx 13 light per kilometer the saving is ten fold. John M
Leithauser
My first thought was tht maybe this study was funded by the coal and oil companies, sicne they have an effective propaganda machine desigend to stear people away from energy saving devices or alternate energy. However, lets assume it is legit. There are several logical questions that occur to me. 1) They mention that \"Incandescent bulbs, incidentally, contain very high levels of lead and mercury, while compact fluorescents are also high in mercury.\" So, how much of thesea re we putting into our landfills if we use incandecent vs. LED lights? Bear in mind the much larger number of incandecent bulds we use since they burn out faster. 2) How much mercury. lead, etc. do we avoid from power plants by using LEDs, which require burning less fossil fuels to power the light? 3) How much harder is it to break the LED light than an incandecent? It seems to me that even in a land fill, LED lights are not going to get the kind of abuse these scientists subjected the LED lights to. They probably will never release all those toxins after normal disposal. All said, of course, there is nothing wrong with recycling LED lights, or at least disposing of them better. It would not be that hard to add these to the list of items that go into the recycle bin instead of the trash.
Francesco Baldacchini
the most stupid article I\'ve ever read, first because all the other light sources, be discharge lamp or incandescent, contain higher level of toxic substances; second led life is far way longer so there are less led wasted during the same frame of time respect to classical sources; third, who the hell is smashing LED when they arrive at the end of their life? You take them and put them in the garbage (special garbage if you are lucky to have separate collection), so I don\'t see any way to enter in contact with the very few quantity of metals inside