About the University of California Study of LEDs and Toxic Materials|
A recent study released by the University of California, Irvine has gained some traction in the news lately as it targets the rapidly growing popularity of LEDs as an environmentally friendly replacement for the incandescent lamp and a better alternative than the compact fluorescent. As has been widely reported in the media, energy concerns have led to new federal regulations intended to phase out of production the traditional incandescent lamp. Beginning this year, one hundred watt incandescent bulbs will be taken out of production, with lower wattage incandescent bulbs targeted for later removal as well. This has led to the hastened development and production of more efficient lighting alternatives such as the compact fluorescent bulb and LEDs.
Most environmental concerns began as the compact fluorescent became the initial front runner in the push by manufacturers and the federal government to provide a practical lighting alternative to the public. Although much more efficient than the incandescent, CFL’s require mercury for their operation, a highly toxic metal known to cause serious neurological impairments and profoundly more dangerous in a vaporous state as is found in CFL’s. The primary concerns here are with the possibilities for inhalation or ingestion of mercury when the CFL bulb is broken in the residential setting. Secondary concerns are with the disposal and eventual environmental destination of mercury once a CFL has reached the end of its useful lifespan. Although manufacturers have taken steps to reduce the amount of mercury used in the construction of CFL’s, the high toxicity of mercury nevertheless requires that special reclamation and recycling efforts accompany the CFL into the public marketplace, greatly reducing their practicality.
Along with serious concerns for the toxicity of mercury contained within CFLs has been a general reluctance on the part of the public to adjust to the somewhat different quality of light they produce. Consumer complaints have generally centered around the slowness with which CFLs reach full power, the weakness of their light output, and a commonly voiced annoyance with the overall quality of the light produced. All of these factors have helped to shift attention to other possible lighting technologies in the hope that these problems can be surmounted while still retaining a high degree of energy efficiency and practicality. LEDs have quickly gathered a good deal of the limelight as a result and initial outlooks have been beyond promising. LEDs have quickly matched, and in fact surpassed the CFL for efficiency of operation while at the same time eliminating concerns with practicality. LEDs, unlike CFL’s, are not subject to degradation and a shortened lifespan from the repeated on and off cycling common in residential lighting applications, nor do they contain mercury. There is no worry of contamination from the release of mercury vapors should an LED lamp break, and the high versatility and longevity of the LED makes it an attractive and highly practical replacement for the incandescent lamp.
This has led to LED manufacturers touting the LED as an eco-friendly alternative to the CFL, and initial appearances would seem support this claim. The University of California, Irvine, however, has published a study which has called into question whether or not LEDs are in fact a safer and more ecologically sound lighting alternative. This study states that LEDs contain toxic materials in their construction and that these materials do pose a potential health and environmental hazard. Media reports have been quick to report these findings, but upon closer inspection of the report itself there appear to be several caveats that present a great deal of equivocation not present in the media reports.
LEDs are in reality a form of semi-conductor and more closely resemble solid state circuitry than a traditional lamp. Like many semi-conductors, there are several compounds occasionally used in their construction that do indeed pose some health and environmental hazards. However, it is critically important to note the finer points of the UCI study in order to better understand just how much impact, if any, this has on the LED as an alternative and environmentally sound lighting solution. Perhaps the two most important findings of note were that lead and arsenic was present in the LEDs tested by UCI. At face value and as presented by the media, this would seem genuine cause for some concern. However, the study also notes that high intensity LEDs that produced white light like those used in the LED7W-E26 LED Light Bulb from Larson Electronics for example, did not contain any lead or arsenic. These compounds were noted to exist in lower powered and colored LEDs, most notably in red LEDs of the type commonly found in Christmas tree light sets for example. This is important because the change to LEDs as a practical replacement for the incandescent bulb will entail the use of high quality white LEDs and not the lower quality colored LEDs noted by the study to contain these hazardous compounds.
It is also important to note that some of the compounds noted in the study are in fact quite commonplace and in truth not classified or regulated by the federal government as being hazardous. Metals such as silver, gold and iron are cited as materials of concern, but it is not noted in the media that these same compounds are quite commonplace in consumer products and that the amounts represented by LEDs are quite negligible by comparison. In fact, the study noted that there are no data sets available for most of the common metals used in the construction of LEDs with which to make a valid hazardous levels comparison. In the case of metallic iron for example, since there was no data available, the labs relied on data for iron oxides instead which is not the true state of the iron used in LEDs. As a final note, the study mentions in closing that lead was not found in most of the LEDs tested and suggested that this was due to European Union and State of California regulations regarding the use of these materials. This suggests that a more in depth and comprehensive study is perhaps merited to determine the true reason for this, such as the manufacturing origin of the LEDs in question and the manufacturing and materials standards of these locations.
Taken at face value, the media headlines for toxic materials having been found in LEDs do indeed appear ominous. However, aside from the somewhat sensational claims being made, further consideration reveals little real need for concern on the part of the consumer. Please note that the Larson Electronics LED bulb was not specifically included in UCI tests and is included here only as an example of a high quality white LED.