Light Bulbs Advertised as 'Green' Contain Arsenic and Lead: Study

l.e.d. bulbs light bulbs greenThose energy-saving little LED bulbs advertised as eco-friendly -- and used in strings of holiday lights and in car headlights -- actually contain toxic lead, arsenic and some other bad stuff, new research shows.

Alarming? Sure. But in a surprise twist, a study author says: Buy them anyway. As long as the bulbs aren't crushed, they pose no danger. And for saving electricity, they hands-down beat Thomas Edison's invention, the incandescent bulb, as well as the traditional bulb's successor, mercury-containing compact fluorescent bulbs.

"We're not recommending that people throw them away. These things have a long life expectancy," Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of University of California Irvine's Department of Population Health & Disease Prevention, told Consumer Ally about LED lights.

You may have read appeals from your electric utility to switch holiday lights to strings of newfangled energy-saving "light-emitting diodes," or LEDs. Maybe you own a flashlight or camping headlamp powered by the tiny bulbs. For research published in the science journal Environmental Science & Technology, Ogunseitan and his colleagues examined crushed holiday LED lights in a quest for health hazards. (That such examination hadn't been done before is, in itself, a "surprise," he says.)

Oddly, they found the danger level varied by bulb color.

White bulbs overall appeared to have relatively low toxicity: "they contain less copper and do not contain arsenic or lead," the study states.

Red lights contained up to eight times the toxic lead permitted under California law. In general, brighter, high-intensity bulbs were more hazardous than others.

"We find the low-intensity red LEDs exhibit significant cancer and non-cancer potentials due to the high content of arsenic and lead," the study states.

Breathing toxic fumes from a single broken bulb wouldn't automatically cause cancer, but could prove a tipping point on top of chronic exposure to other carcinogens, according to a university press release. Toddlers could be harmed, Ogunseitan warned, if they mistook the bright lights for candy.

That's not exactly what you want to hear about an "environmentally friendly" light bulb.

What to do:
  • If your LED bulbs stop working or break open, do what you're supposed to do when your compact fluorescent bulbs go out -- consider it hazardous waste and never toss it in the trash.
  • Wearing gloves and a mask, sweep up broken bulbs with a designated broom kept for this hazardous purpose (more tips here).
  • Take the contaminated pieces to your community's hazardous-waste facility. (As an aside, chances are a business in your community takes back intact compact fluorescent bulbs, as seen here.)

On the bright side, LED lights tested by Ogunseitan didn't contain mercury, which is one if its touted high points. Compact fluorescent bulbs do contain mercury; when broken, mercury can be released as a vapor. "That's a big problem," Ogunseitan says. "Don't breathe the dust."

LED lights have been considered the next great thing for green lighting, and Ogunseitan says consumers still should buy them. Manufacturers of compact flourescent bulbs haven't been able to find a substitute for mercury after a decade of trying, he says. The makers of LED lights could switch to lead-free soldering to improve their toxic troubles. Until then, he calls for policies at the state and local government levels to make sure that people have ways to dispose of these "green" bulbs responsibly.
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