LED bulbs not as eco-friendly as some might think


February 14, 2011

A new study from the University of California indicates that LED lights contain toxic metals, and should be produced, used and disposed of carefully (Photo: Geoffrey A. Landis)

A new study from the University of California indicates that LED lights contain toxic metals, and should be produced, used and disposed of carefully (Photo: Geoffrey A. Landis)

LED light bulbs are becoming increasingly popular with designers and consumers of green technology, as they use less electricity, last longer, and emit more light on a pound-for-pound basis than traditional incandescent bulbs. However, while it may be tempting to look at them as having solved the problem of environmentally-unfriendly lighting, researchers from the University of California would advise against such thinking.

Scientists from UC Irvine and UC Davis pulverized multicolored LED Christmas lights, traffic signal lights, and automobile head and brake lights, allowed residue to leach from them, and then analyzed its chemical content. They discovered that low-intensity red LEDs contained up to eight times the amount of lead allowed under California law, although generally brighter bulbs tended to contain the most contaminants. While white bulbs had a lower lead content than their colored counterparts, they still had high levels of nickel.

Besides the lead and nickel, the bulbs and their associated parts were also found to contain arsenic, copper, and other metals that have been linked to different cancers, neurological damage, kidney disease, hypertension, skin rashes and other illnesses in humans, and to ecological damage in waterways. UC Irvine’s Oladele Ogunseitan said that while breaking a single bulb and breathing its fumes would not automatically cause cancer, it could be the tipping point for an individual regularly exposed to another carcinogen.

The study found that the production, use and disposal of LEDs all present health risks, which the public should be made aware of. It suggests that a special broom, gloves and mask should be used when cleaning up broken bulbs, and that crews attending to car accidents or broken traffic lights should be required to wear protective gear, and treat the material as hazardous waste.

LEDs are currently not classified as toxic, and are disposed of in conventional landfills.

Ogunseitan blames the situation on a lack of proper product testing before LEDs were presented as a more efficient replacement for incandescent bulbs – which are now being phased out around the world. Although a law requiring more stringent testing for such products was scheduled to begin on January 1st in California, it was opposed by industry groups, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put it on hold before leaving office.

“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,” said Ogunseitan. “And it's a preventable risk.”

Incandescent bulbs, incidentally, contain very high levels of lead and mercury, while compact fluorescents are also high in mercury.

The UC Irvine and UC Davis team's study appears in the January 2011 issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

What about all the mercury that wouldn\'t enter the environment as a result of reduced energy consumption, given that the major source of mercury pollution are the coal fired power plants which supply around 80% of the electricity in the USA? Even with our unconsciously destructive practices it may be the case that the use of LED bulbs results in a net reduction of pollution. If the goal is to control pollutants, it would make sense to look at the biggest sources of the worst pollutants and worry about them. It\'s been suggested that coal power is the reason our waterways fail to meet EPA standards for mercury content, so maybe we could reduce pollution more effectively by moving to nuclear power.Certainly a more obvious overall solution would be to design everything for sustainability over consumability.


So, this crap study finally made it to Gizmag, eh?Realize this is a study from health sociologists - not medical doctors or metallurgical scientists. No double blind studies, just conclusions based on fears over the elements in components, not derivative of any Public Health studies.It may get the dept a grant. That\'s about it.


Virtually nothing we produce is completely free of toxins. LED bulbs last 10 times as long as flouros and they don\'t contain mercury. They are also much less fragile than other types of lighting. As long as the manufacturers take safeguards and they are disposed of properly, LED\'s are much less hazardous than other forms of artificial lighting.

Edgar Walkowsky

The latest LED technology seems to be moving to SMD, or surface mount diodes. They can put out an incredible amount of light without the plastic cylindrical housing/lens we\'re used to seeing. I wonder if these present the same long term dangers.

Daryn O'Shea

The real story is that it is unsafe to grind up electronic devices and analyze their contents. Every integrated circuit in all the tons of these older unrecycled devices contains metals that are now considered toxic. Even sea water is toxic as well as the water in many of the spas and thermal pools around the world (under the rules in place today).


Something stinks about this study. I would rather have lead and nickel in our landfills instead of mercury. At lead the earth will know what to do with it. Mercury on the other hand, not so much.

I find it ironic that all of these far wack job environmentalists force us to change from a safe light bulb to \"eco friendly\" bulbs that contain undisputable unsafe chemicals.

Lets toss something else into the mix. LED\'s are starting to take a strong hold, and are the next progression of light to replace the incandescent. Who paid these crack pots to perform this study, or write this pile of rubbish report of a study?

If anything should be taken from this bogus study, LED lights should be sent to the electronic goods recycler.

Tim Johnson

LED bulbs not as eco-friendly as some might think - Some scientists are not as bright as you think.


Compact flouro lights contain about 25 mili-grams of MERCURY way less than Mercury discharge lamps which line highways world wide. If they are disposed of wisely I see no big deal over this. The thing is they save large amounts of energy therefore cutting pollution. I do not know about Leds, though they save a lot of energy. A350 watt street light can be replaced with a 35 watt led cluster. At approx 13 light per kilometer the saving is ten fold. John M

John M

My first thought was tht maybe this study was funded by the coal and oil companies, sicne they have an effective propaganda machine desigend to stear people away from energy saving devices or alternate energy. However, lets assume it is legit. There are several logical questions that occur to me. 1) They mention that \"Incandescent bulbs, incidentally, contain very high levels of lead and mercury, while compact fluorescents are also high in mercury.\" So, how much of thesea re we putting into our landfills if we use incandecent vs. LED lights? Bear in mind the much larger number of incandecent bulds we use since they burn out faster. 2) How much mercury. lead, etc. do we avoid from power plants by using LEDs, which require burning less fossil fuels to power the light? 3) How much harder is it to break the LED light than an incandecent? It seems to me that even in a land fill, LED lights are not going to get the kind of abuse these scientists subjected the LED lights to. They probably will never release all those toxins after normal disposal. All said, of course, there is nothing wrong with recycling LED lights, or at least disposing of them better. It would not be that hard to add these to the list of items that go into the recycle bin instead of the trash.


the most stupid article I\'ve ever read, first because all the other light sources, be discharge lamp or incandescent, contain higher level of toxic substances; second led life is far way longer so there are less led wasted during the same frame of time respect to classical sources; third, who the hell is smashing LED when they arrive at the end of their life? You take them and put them in the garbage (special garbage if you are lucky to have separate collection), so I don\'t see any way to enter in contact with the very few quantity of metals inside

Francesco Baldacchini

This article is irresponsible in its reporting as it doest compare impacts equitably. It fails to address the impacts from compact florescent bulbs as well as incandescent AND their life expectancy. LEDs last 50,000 hours, 1000 times longer than incandescent and thus their accumulated impacts are a 1000 less. I would hope Gizmag creates a more thorough peer review of articles before misleading articles like this are continued.


fascinatingly inconclusive article. 8 times the level recommended by the government, is the only comparative measure of toxicity given. the level for a juice drink? a baby toy? a household decoration? a led contains 20 times less toxins than a mobile phone, than an incandescant bulb, 2 million times less than a car battery or a duracell battey?

we still are none the wiser. do they recommend gloves and biohazard suits for duracell batteries? what if they made a juice drink from fom other electronics as a comparison.

intelligent thing would be tomeasure airborn breathable lead or to give a moderated sensibe safety warning. \"dont put them in your compost\".

Ooh Bertie

Standard incandescents consist of tungsten (with microalloying), steel and argon and maybe copper and glass. People must be thinking of mercury vapour globes which obviously contain mercury.


Is there part of the article that some of the other commenters read and I missed? As far as I can tell, it's saying: A study has shown that LED bulbs contain SOME hazardous materials. People should be aware of that when they're using them, and they shouldn't just be tossed in the garbage. The scientist is PO'd that this wasn't brought up in the first place. No one appears to be saying that LEDs should be banned, or that they're no better or greener than incandescents. What's with all the excitement?


I wrote a comment, but when I posted it, Gizmag told me that my session had expired and I had to log in again, so it deleted my text without saving it. Gosh, thanks. Apparently what you want is for people to just write as fast as they can, and post without any thinking or revisions.

Geoffrey Landis

\"Scientists from UC Irvine and UC Davis pulverized multicolored LED Christmas lights, traffic signal lights, and automobile head and brake lights, allowed residue to leach from them, and then analyzed its chemical content.\"

The picture is totally misleading as it clearly states in the article that the light bulbs in the study does not contain the light bulb replacements in the picture. In addition it is really interesting that the content is anlysed according to the article, but not the evironmental impact of the production of the material compared to alternatives available. I would like to see the link to the study so I can check myself what is in it and what not exactly. Most of the things written down is hearsay at best. Please present a link to the study and not only the link to the webpage of the institutes.

Thanks for pointing that out. A link to the study has been added to the article. - Ed. Dany Ehrenbrink

@ MrWho: I was going to write the same thing. The way I read it, the point of the study was to let people be aware that LEDs aren\'t perfect. That\'s it.@ Geoffrey A. Landis: My advice - whenever posting to a website, first save the text to another application (notepad in Windows for example), then post. I had previously lost hours of writing before doing this. Now when it tells me there was an error (or whatever) that caused all my work to be lost, I laugh at it and then paste my text back in. This happens way too often to leave to chance.


In my state all electronic devices(CRT\'s,Desk tops Lap Tops.PC boards,etc. have to be recycled seperately, just add the LED\'s to the list.

FL Phantom

We recycle way up North here in our small Alberta Town. We even have neighbourhood \"Recycle Depots\", where one can drive in, pop your recyclables into the appropriate bins and scoot out.

That being said, I never thought to add LED lights to that list simply because...I\'ve never had an LED light burn out yet!

However, all our lights - incandescent, flourescent and CFL lights are packed together for disposal at our Depots. The Recycle Truck does not like to pick up glass items, and really, it is less than a 5 minute drive to the Recycle Depot.

I agree that I would like to see a \"real-world\" study that shows toxicity levels in everyday use. I mean, I don\'t go sticking LED and CFL lights into my mouth, so what really is the study trying to say?

How about giving some \"real-world\" comparisons? Now, THAT would be news.

Edwin Wityshyn

What gets me is that the people commenting on the article seem to have more useful information and facts than the researchers who spent time studying this. I don\'t doubt that everything is toxic at some level but yesteryear I dropped one of my led lights and it shot across my hard wood floor into the corner. I figured it was done for. To my surprise I picked it up and it was fine, and is currently lighting my room and has been for well over a year. In that time I usually go through 2 to 3 incandescent bulbs in this room and on average 6 to 10 per year. Since replacing all my lights with led\'s I get better lighting, my AC doesn\'t run as much (incandescent produce a LOT of heat, and that is bad in Austin), and I probably burn 1/10th the energy (75 watt bulbs replaced by 5 watt)= 15x as efficient. I have one bulbs that is 3 years old and is still chugging along. Based on my experience with LED\'s I have to say those researchers are none too bright and California\'s standards are a bit over the top.

Slar Mas

Pulverized? I suppose so.

Mechanically ground up to turn them into tiny bits.

Because that\'s the only way to actually break them. In use, the idea that someone could \"break\" an LED is patently ridiculous. I\'m completely unworried about lead from an LED leaching into the earth. There\'s more lead in an alkaline battery or small appliance, and many places still toss those into a landfill.


Regarding lead: In the electronics industry we have already major problem with blunt environmentalist rolling-out lead-free electronics requirements. I do not say: it is all wrong, automotive is already an exempt, because of reliability. Lead-free soldering is not reliable enough for safety-critical devices or to offer 10 yrs warranty. I wouldn\'t also solder any LED light with lead-free, because of lifetime expectancy beyond 10 years. BTW: Lead is not poisonous when properly disposed off. The worst is when you burn it. The landfill is generally not a problem. Just don\'t incinerate the electronics waste.

The devices may also have trace amounts of some other dangerous chemicals. That should be monitored, but anyway: With LED lights roughly compared to incandescent, 10 times less material per candela of light, 100 times the energy efficiency, 1000 times the life-expectancy, 10000 less dangerous waste per candela/hour of light, the scale of savings on the environmental impact is enormous. Only idiots could complain.

Tomasz Kawała

I won't dispute that CFL or LED bulbs are more energy efficient than incandescent. But, while LED bulbs are now being pushed as the next generation beyond CFL, energy usage between CFL and LED are almost equal. Typically, an 800 lumen LED bulb uses 13.5 watts, while an 800 lumen CFL uses 14 watts. (And LED costs 30 times more than CFL to purchase) Also, rated lifetimes on LED vs CFL are not an outstanding difference - typically LED lasts about 2.5 times as long as CFL. So, the only major ecological difference between the two appears to be the mercury content. I won't be surprised to see other (more scientific) studies proving that the gallium, arsenic, and phosphor used in LEDs are as bad for the environment as is mercury.

Maybe we should go back to whale-oil lamps.


LED's contain glass, solid, not a bulb, Gallium, Arsenic Sulfid or phosphor, Indium in some cases, nitrates and Zinc, oxygen and a few other clever elements, not lead or mercury. Lead is in most solders for any kind of lighting. This article is very misleading and completely wrong in it's assesment of LEDs.

Ronald Cooper

Edwin Wityshyn brought up the wisest ‘comment – solution’ to our global problem “real-world" study that shows toxicity levels in everyday use. I would add- the only true independent study. and give it to Us “the REAL- WORLD TOXICITY COMPARISONS” Wes August

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