LED products billed as eco-friendly contain toxic metals, study finds

February 10, 2011, University of California - Irvine

Those light-emitting diodes marketed as safe, environmentally preferable alternatives to traditional lightbulbs actually contain lead, arsenic and a dozen other potentially hazardous substances, according to newly published research.

"LEDs are touted as the next generation of lighting. But as we try to find better products that do not deplete energy resources or contribute to , we have to be vigilant about the hazards of those marketed as replacements," said Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of UC Irvine's Department of Population Health & Disease Prevention.

He and fellow scientists at UCI and UC Davis crunched, leached and measured the tiny, multicolored lightbulbs sold in Christmas strands; red, yellow and green traffic lights; and automobile headlights and brake lights. Their findings? Low-intensity red lights contained up to eight times the amount of lead allowed under California law, but in general, high-intensity, brighter bulbs had more contaminants than lower ones. White bulbs had the least lead, but contained high amounts of nickel.

"We find the low-intensity red LEDs exhibit significant cancer and noncancer potentials due to the high content of arsenic and lead," the team wrote in the January 2011 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, referring to the holiday lights. Results from the larger lighting products will be published later, but according to Ogunseitan, "it's more of the same."

Lead, and many additional metals discovered in the bulbs or their related parts have been linked in hundreds of studies to different cancers, neurological damage, kidney disease, hypertension, skin rashes and other illnesses. The copper used in some LEDs also poses an ecological threat to fish, rivers and lakes.

Ogunseitan said that breaking a single and breathing fumes would not automatically cause cancer, but could be a tipping point on top of chronic exposure to another carcinogen. And – noting that lead tastes sweet – he warned that small children could be harmed if they mistake the bright lights for candy.

Risks are present in all parts of the lights and at every stage during production, use and disposal, the study found. Consumers, manufacturers and first responders to accident scenes ought to be aware of this, Ogunseitan said. When bulbs break at home, residents should sweep them up with a special broom while wearing gloves and a mask, he advised. Crews dispatched to clean up car crashes or broken traffic fixtures should don protective gear and handle the material as hazardous waste. Currently, LEDs are not classified as toxic and are disposed of in regular landfills. Ogunseitan has forwarded the study results to California and federal health regulators.

He cites LEDs as a perfect example of the need to mandate product replacement testing. The diodes are widely hailed as safer than compact fluorescent bulbs, which contain dangerous mercury. But, he said, they weren't properly tested before being marketed as the preferred alternative to inefficient incandescent bulbs, now being phased out under California law. A long-planned state regulation originally set to take effect Jan. 1 would have required advance testing of such replacement products. But it was opposed by industry groups, a less stringent version was substituted, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger placed the law on hold days before he left office.

"I'm frustrated, but the work continues," said Ogunseitan, a member of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control's Green Ribbon Science Panel. He said makers of LEDs and other items could easily reduce chemical concentrations or redesign them with truly safer materials. "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," he said. "And it's a preventable risk."

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4.1 / 5 (9) Feb 10, 2011
Sigh! Where does the lead they are talking about come from? Almost certainly from solder connecting the bulbs to wires. (This is why the lead level is lowest in larger bulbs, more LED mass compared to smaller bulbs.)

How big a risk of contamination is this? Relatively speaking, none. Remember all the effort to get lead out of interior house paints? And to get lead (and copper) pipes out of older houses? How about tetra-ethyl lead as an octane booster in gasoline? Or lead-acid batteries that no longer go into landfills? If there is any risk today compared to when I was growing up, it is that children are experiencing a lead deficiency.

I'm being somewhat ironic, but the lead levels in the environment from broken LEDs will be like a million times less that the lowest measurable dose 50 years ago--and all the risks above, plus leeching from copper mining were easily measurable back then. And the rules about using lead-free solder should end that anyway.
3.8 / 5 (5) Feb 10, 2011
And it's not like these deadly elements were created in the transmutation reactors - they already existed in nature! (Note, lead itself does *NOT* taste sweet - certain lead compounds do.)
4.6 / 5 (7) Feb 10, 2011
Double sigh!
Ogunseitan said that breaking a single light and breathing fumes would not automatically cause cancer.

Led's won't emit any fumes when broken.
Besides about the only way to break a LED is with a hammer.

Hopefully he's joking about the copper, otherwise we'll need to stop using electricity, since copper is used in virtually all wiring, not to mention a lot of our plumbing.
5 / 5 (7) Feb 10, 2011
LED lamps are FAR safer than our current generation of compact fluorescent lamps, which contain mercury vapor. If a CFL bulb is broken in a small room, not only do you risk injury from broken glass, you will be breathing in mercury fumes as well. Contrast that with an LED lamp where the active element is completely solid (Gallium nitride) , and further sealed inside a tough lump of plastic. In addition, far fewer LED lamps will end up in landfills due to their exceptionally long life. As for lead in electrical products, it's not used much anymore, especially in modern RoHS compliant products.

1.8 / 5 (5) Feb 10, 2011
it seems to be the nature of contemporary technology that every 'advance' carries an incredible amount of harmful or dangerous baggage: e.g. look at the environmental downside of the manufacture and ultimate disposal of solar panels, electric-car batteries, etc; investigate how many birds are killed by wind-turbine blades; etcetera

of course, this isn't new; consider, for example, the environmental destruction caused by construction of the dams needed to produce 'clean' hydroelectric power

how did the world ever survive, I wonder, before we had microwaves, cell phones, genetically-modified foods, 600-hp cars, nuclear waste, thalidomide...
4 / 5 (4) Feb 10, 2011
Give me a break. The amounts of these materials in an LED is so minuscule that it hardly matters. Beyond that, they are encapsulated in a very strong and impervious plastic, so in order to get into the environment the plastic has to be removed. Stop being alarmist. LED's consume so much less energy than incandescent or fluorescent lamps that the reduction of carbon dumped into the atmosphere more than offsets the minute risk they pose. People who burn wood for heat in their homes are far bigger risks to everyone than LEDs. Get a life and tell the whole truth, not just a slice that supports your petty agenda
3.4 / 5 (5) Feb 10, 2011
I agree with vigilence and slowly eliminating anything toxic out of the manufacturing process, but I think I speak for us all when I say F U Oladele Ogunseitan (The person saying how the lead, nickel, and copper in an LED are toxic.)

They're using a computer with ten times the toxic elements as an LED.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 11, 2011
...if only we lived in a world with no risks or hazards...and lived forever...
3 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2011
Did they factor in the current 100,000 hour lifetime of a good LED as well? I doubt it.

Even so it still goes to show that we need to factor in the environmental cost for everything. We don't do that for anything now which is why some things are so cheap. We don't pay the environmental cost up front. If we did some things wouldn't be so cheap, like electronics and fluorescent light bulbs. We should be recycling 100% of everything that's possible.
4 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2011
LED lamps are FAR safer than our current generation of compact fluorescent lamps, which contain mercury vapor...

CFLs will be the next asbestos. No one reads the EPA site which says leave the room immediately if you break one. Don't vacuum them up, follow HAZMAT protocol. You are not supposed to throw CFLs away. Broken CFLs are supposed to be taken to a special disposal location e.g. IKEA, Home Depot. I tried explaining this to people when I see them throw them in the trash but they don't care. How many people know that the Feds recommend leaving the room immediately if you break one, do not use a vacuum. The problem with mercury is that once it binds with the nervous system it is irreversible.
4 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2011
They're using a computer with ten times the toxic elements as an LED...

And remember that the old glass TVs are more the 50% lead. Yep that's why they were so heavy. Those TVs were beta radiation devices pointed at the the viewer. Lead was mixed with the glass to shield the viewer from being irradiated with high energy beta particals. Some electons could be accelerated up to 1/8th light speed achieving relatavistic effects.
Most people also have an ionizing smoke detector. These contain the synthetic radiactive Americium that only comes from the processing of spent nuclear fuel rods. It does not occur in nature or anywhere else in the Universe. Yet we put this gamma source in our homes unshielded. It is a small amount however the exposure time is long. Americium is a nuclear fuel so it should not be allowed in the hands of the general public on the grounds of national security. Not sure why they have to use it when there is a safe alternative.

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