Shedding light on risks of LEDs

March 1, 2011 By Janet Wilson, University of California, Irvine
“As we try to find better products that do not deplete energy resources or contribute to global warming, we have to be vigilant about the toxicity hazards of those marketed as replacements,” says Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of UCI’s Department of Population Health & Disease Prevention. Credit: Michelle S. Kim / University Communications

If you haven't taken down your Christmas lights yet, do it very carefully. Those modern, light-emitting diode bulbs marketed as safe, environmentally preferable alternatives to traditional lights 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 global warming, we have to be vigilant about the toxicity hazards of those marketed as replacements,” says 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 bulbs sold in Christmas strands; 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 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, arsenic 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 says that breaking a single light and breathing fumes wouldn’t automatically cause cancer but could be a tipping point on top of chronic exposure to another carcinogen. And – noting that lead tastes sweet – he warns that small children could be harmed if they mistake the bright lights for candy. A simple Google search, he adds, turns up many toys containing bulbs.

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 says.

When bulbs break at home, residents should sweep them up with a special broom while wearing gloves and a mask, he advises. 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 says, they weren’t properly tested before being marketed as the preferred alternative to inefficient incandescent bulbs, now being phased out under California and U.S. 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,” says Ogunseitan, a member of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control’s Green Ribbon Science Panel. He says 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 says. “And it’s a preventable risk.”

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

Related Stories

Care for some light music? LEDs make it possible

May 12, 2010

(AP) -- Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are starting to become cost-effective alternatives to standard light bulbs and fluorescent tubes. That opens up some interesting possibilities, such as the combination LED light and ...

Recommended for you

Glacial moulin formation triggered by rapid lake drainage

January 18, 2018

Scientists are uncovering the mystery of how, where and when important glacial features called moulins form on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Moulins, vertical conduits that penetrate through the half-mile-deep ice, efficiently ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 01, 2011
Astonishing, but not surprising.
3.8 / 5 (6) Mar 01, 2011
There are hazards to using LEDs just as there are hazards to not using them (higher energy production).

This is about risk assessment. Knee-jerk reaction to the lead and arsenic are foolish and unwarranted. Meanwhile, if you don't like the materials being selected by people in developing countries, manufacture it yourself domestically.
4.5 / 5 (8) Mar 01, 2011
I think that if we can all agree not to eat the little tiny light bulbs, civilization might survive.
4 / 5 (5) Mar 01, 2011
Perhaps we should resort to kerosene lamps and candles, and ignore the risks of fire and fumes from open combustion.
4 / 5 (9) Mar 01, 2011
the author is an idiot...
"do it very carefully"

ten dollars says if you check they probably wrote an article in the past lording it over CFL lamps...

the next time i take my xmas lights down, i promise i will make sure that i dont leave the cover off the large vat of acrylic solvent, and prevent my tripping and dropping all the lights into it, waiting several hours to dissolve the acrylic, then somehow separating these dangerous chemicals.

4.1 / 5 (10) Mar 01, 2011
you can eat them... they are embedded in acrylic.. and this too shall pass... :)
5 / 5 (4) Mar 01, 2011
So what is the comparison of lead and contaminant content compared to the emission of said contaminants when using traditional incandescents?

Similar arguments were made about the Mercury in CFLs but the manufacture to end of life calculation significantly favored CFLs in total based on current grid infrastructures.
5 / 5 (3) Mar 01, 2011
nickel is an essential element in human diet, not that you would get it by eating LEDs. Any risk should be compared to background risk, as the natural environment contains all these elements anyway. Burning coal to make that power outputs a fair quantity of elements in the ash and smoke, and that amount needed for an incandescent globe will exceed the tiny amount in a LED.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 01, 2011
And then the politicians found out that exposure to sunlight can be harmful. Bills were proposed to ban electromagnetism.
1 / 5 (2) Mar 01, 2011
Lol isn't lead a primary ingredient in bullets? And those are actually designed to kill people...

Also, I am pretty sure that the lead in the LEDs came from somewhere. So, even if we dump them into landfills - where no one will live anyway - what is the harm in moving something that we know hurts people from somewhere there are people to somewhere there aren't?
5 / 5 (2) Mar 01, 2011
Next they will be writing an article about the hazards of OLED lights...
3 / 5 (4) Mar 02, 2011
Quoat"The copper used in some LEDs also poses an ecological threat to fish" . Copper is an element that is Found in most plants and animals in fact the pill bug uses it to carry oxygen in its blood. No one is ever farther than 100 feet from something that has copper in it. The half truths, propaganda and seudo science in this article is frankly an insult to everyones inteligence.
4.2 / 5 (10) Mar 02, 2011
Dang, everything on this planet is toxic, no wonder the death rate is 100%!
4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 02, 2011
They arrived to these conclusions by taking a bunch of LEDs, crushing them to fine powder in a ball mill, and then concluding that yes indeed, the fine dust they got was hazardous.

So, let me go over to my christmas lights, grind them to dust and then snort it.

The exact same argument can be made about every single piece of electronics you have, that has a microchip in it. The only problem is that the only person who will ever come into direct contact with those chemicals is the person who removes the parts from their protective casings and grinds the chips into powder in order to test that they do contain these chemicals.

Which is a pointless exercise anyways. You could just ask the manufacturer what they put in to them.
5 / 5 (3) Mar 02, 2011
a pointless exercise anyways. You could just ask the manufacturer what they put in to them.
Because their answers, of course, will be true, always and everywhere.
See PhysOrg's
2011-01-farms-german-dioxin-scandal.html .
2 / 5 (4) Mar 02, 2011
OMG!!! Then we must completely abandon our computers! There is arsinic and other nasties in computer chips too!!!

Back to the caves, everyone!

These academics should be forced to do something useful for mankind, like cleaning sewer plants.
2.6 / 5 (5) Mar 02, 2011
residents should sweep them up with a special broom while wearing gloves and a mask, he advises. Crews dispatched to clean up car crashes or broken traffic fixtures should don protective gear and handle the material as hazardous waste

lol. I would hate to live in this guy's house. I wonder if he uses a chemical protection suit to change the batteries in his television remote? The common AA sized battery is almost entirely composed of hazardous materials. I can't believe any of us are still alive and able to leave our homes without assistance.

What really worries me is that nitrogen fertilizer is an explosive ingredient. I think all grass should have safety barricades around it, just in case it explodes. Personally, I don't walk on it, and I hide under the table when the paper boy throws the daily paper onto the yard. Never can be too carefull I say.
2.6 / 5 (5) Mar 02, 2011
one more thing; Good News!!

I know where California can start cutting its budget without firing any teachers or police officers.
1 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2011
oh crud!!!!

i just realized that if you subtract water from a human body, and or the body of those cute dogs rich women fawn over, we are walking toxic metal and chemical dumps!!!

do you realize that copulation could even mix thee chemicals up and causing more toxic waste dumps tob e wandering around making more toxic waste dumsps.

life itself is dangerous to life itself.

the greenies are really a front for the stone and rock lobby who want all life to be gone so they can have a few million years of peace and quiet!!!!
1 / 5 (3) Mar 02, 2011
Everything men do bad. Everything "nature" do good.

This is ALL that's needed to understand this mentality.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 07, 2011
Repeating the same nonsense again and again does not make it true!
Yes there may be toxic materials in some (or even most) LEDs, but to classify the risk similar to CFL is stupid!
Today it should be clear that ALL electronic products have to be recycled and not deposited in a landfill.
Shame on publishers that just reprint articles again and again, without seriously discussing it.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 07, 2011
With all those other nasty ingredients I sure hope it doesn't have Dihydrogen Monoxide in it as well!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.