LEDs are one of the few types of lighting that actually give you enough light to see by, while still being good for the environment... or maybe not.
They actually contain lead, arsenic and a dozen other potentially hazardous substances, according to Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of UC Irvine’s Department of Population Health & Disease Prevention.
"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 Ogunseitan.
He and his team crushed the tiny, multicolored lightbulbs sold in Christmas strands, along with red, yellow and green traffic lights and automobile headlights and brake lights.
They found that low-intensity red lights contained up to eight times the amount of lead allowed under California law, leading to 'significant' potential to cause cancer.
High-intensity, brighter bulbs had more contaminants than lower ones. White bulbs contained the least lead, but had high levels of nickel.
Other substances found in the bulbs have been shown to cause a range of cancers, neurological damage, kidney disease, hypertension, skin rashes and other illnesses.
Ogunseitan says that while breaking a single light and breathing fumes wouldn't automatically cause cancer, it could be a tipping point on top of chronic exposure to another carcinogen.
His recommendations might seem a bit extreme, though. When bulbs break at home, people should sweep them up with a special broom while wearing gloves and a mask, he says. Crews cleaning up car crashes or broken traffic fixtures should wear protective gear and treat the material as hazardous waste.
Currently, LEDs aren't classified as toxic, and go to regular landfills along with ordinary domestic garbage.
Ogunseitan claims that LEDs simply weren’t properly tested for potential health impacts before being marketed. A long-planned state regulation originally set to take effect in January would have required advance testing - but was opposed by industry groups. A less stringent version was substituted, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger placed the law on hold days before he left office.
Ogunseitan said makers of LEDs and other items could easily reduce chemical concentrations or redesign them with truly safer materials. "It's a preventable risk," he says.