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The dark side of LEDs: Some colored lights contain lead


As the light from incandescent bulbs dims in the face of their impending phase-out, new concerns are being raised about the hazardous materials contained in some of their more energy-efficient replacements, such as light-emitting diodes or LEDs.

While LEDs consume a fraction of the energy of incandescents and last exponentially longer, some colored LEDs may contain lead, according to Potential Environmental Impacts of Light-Emitting Diodes, a new study by UC Irvine published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The study tested low- and high-intensity LEDs in red, yellow, green, blue and white. Low-intensity red LEDs, commonly used in Christmas lights and traffic applications, contained eight times more lead than California law allows, the study found. High-intensity red, low-intensity yellow and low-intensity green LEDs also contained lead but in far lower quantities. The study did not find lead in any of the blue or white LEDs.

Lead is used in certain LEDs as an alloy metal to solder together interior components.

"The policy to eliminate incandescent light bulbs is in part because of the concern about climate change, but we've been concerned that we're not looking too closely at the risks that we're trading with the introduction of these new lighting technologies," said Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of UCI's department of population health and disease prevention, which conducted the research with grant money from the National Science Foundation.

"LEDs have become very, very prominent in many different consumer products. As a country we should probably make some recommendations to the manufacturers in terms of what risks will be acceptable and not acceptable as we move toward more energy-efficient products."

Ogunseitan said the goal of the study was to characterize the risks associated with LEDs before "they inevitably take over the energy and lighting world," he said. Those risks include the workers who are exposed to toxic materials during the manufacture of LEDs, consumers who may break them, children who may chew on them and emergency responders to traffic accidents, as well as landfill workers.


California phasing out 100-watt incandescent light bulbs

IKEA stops selling incandescent light bulbs

Toxic chemical rules are on Governor Brown's agenda 

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: LED Christmas lights. Credit: Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times

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Fluorescent lights contain mercury, which is much more toxic. Car batteries contain many pounds of lead, but it's alright because nobody is eating them and they are recycled. Fact of the matter is that lead was used in solder for decades and there was never any evidence that it contributed to lead poisoning. The transition to lead-free solder only shortened the life of electronic devices and increased the amount of trash in the landfills. Furthermore, the lead within LED's is encapsulated within plastic, so that even if it were swallowed, it would not contribute to toxicity.

Every time you throw away an electronic device, you're tossing lead in a landfill. Virtually every device that you plug in contains lead in some form or another. Parents, please make sure your children know that they're not supposed to suck electronics.

So I guess the whole point of this is to say 'don't eat LEDs?'

Perhaps the headline should have read, "The Bright side of LED's: lights contain less lead than their incandescent predecessors." After all, that is, indeed, the case. So why the scare tactic? Just as the mercury in CFLs is small compared with the mercury released into the atmosphere in order to keep a comparable incandescent bulb burning, the lead in LED lamps is small in comparison to that contained in old-fashioned Christmas lights.

Reporters need to look and cradle-to-grave impacts, and editors need to insist the fact-checkers check the facts.

Why do people get so worked up over lead? These nannies are worried about milligrams of lead in LED's, where today, every car in America has many many kilograms of lead in their often improperly disposed batteries.

Lead is perhaps the best player of the toxic heavy metals as it bonds readily to soil and migrates slowly if at all into ground water.

This does not mean that breathing in lead particles from ethyl leaded gas is a good idea, nor does it mean that slathering homes in doomed to peel and be eaten lead paint is a good idea.

But in electronics, the risk is minuscule and the benefits of enhanced reliability are high.


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