LED Bulb Research Finds Toxic Materials in Commonly Available LED Light Bulbs
LED bulb research shows LED bulbs may come with environmental risks
University of California Irvine and Univeristy of California Davis chemical engineers published a paper regarding the toxicity of LED bulbs in the January issue of Environmental Science and Technology.
For the study, researchers smashed small LED bulbs—primarily bulbs used on holiday light strands—to measure the toxicity of chemicals contained within the LED bulb. The team, led by Seong-Rin Lim, Daniel Kang, Oladele A. Ogunseitan, and Julie M. Schoenung, stressed the importance of fully analyzing the environmental impact of small LED bulbs, considering that United States imports almost 12 billion individual LED holiday lights a year.
Results showed that, of materials found in LED bulbs, “copper, iron, lead (Pb), nickel, and silver contribute most to the hazard potential.” They found that low-intensity red LED bulbs exhibit the most toxic potential because they contain arsenic and lead—metals that yellow LED bulbs also contain.
White LED bulbs are the safest, according to this study, because they do not contain arsenic or lead and they contain much less copper.
This study tested cancer, noncancer, and ecotoxicity potential of metals occurring in LED bulbs. Ecotoxicity is defined as biological, chemical, and physical stress that a material places on an ecosystem—usually during mining or after its disposal. Copper and nickel contributed most to ecotoxicity, which significantly affects the earth, but must also be put into context.
Copper is used regularly in electronic wiring, water pipes, dishware, roofs, radiation therapy, air-conditioning systems, and musical instruments—to name just a few (not to mention its prominent use in huge statues). Nickel is used to make stainless steel, rechargeable batteries, fuel cells, and American nickels, dimes, quarters, and half dollars (most of which are 25% nickel and 75% copper).
UC scientists are right to cite the ecotoxicity potential of metals in LED bulbs. They also cite the heavy mining waste associated with silver and gold, both of which are found in low concentrations in LED bulbs.
While this study will help point future LED bulb production in a less harmful direction, it does not conclude that LED bulbs are more dangerous than incandescents or CFLs.
No bulbs exceeded EPA toxicity standards except low-intensity LED bulbs. California has higher standards than the federal government in copper, lead, nickel, and silver, which means that only yellow intensity LED bulbs exceed healthy levels of these materials according to California regulations.
According to the study, gold and silver toxicity results primarily from “resource depletion potentials,” while “the burden from toxicity potentials is associated primarily with arsenic, copper, nickel, lead, iron, and silver.”
LED bulbs certainly would benefit from less inclusion of heavy metals, and we hope to see LED technology progress in that direction in the near future. Buying light bulbs for now should be accompanied with a healthy level of skepticism—not paranoia.