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    Pick Your Poison - Mercury In CFLs Or Lead In LEDs (or Just Go Back To Incandescent Bulbs)
    By News Staff | February 11th 2011 01:06 AM | 38 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    In the somewhat irrational war on incandescent light bulbs, one thing left out is that the current alternatives are not great yet either.   If you break a CFL bulb, you'd better call in a HazMat team (and who knows what the high frequency ballasts are doing to your pets?) but if you break an LED, the lead levels are far too high, according to a new study.

    Unlike CFLs, light-emitting diodes are marketed as safe, environmentally preferable alternatives to traditional lightbulbs but they actually contain lead, arsenic and a dozen other potentially hazardous substances, according to the newly published research.   LEDs are not classified as toxic and are disposed of in regular landfills.

    "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," said Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of UC Irvine's Department of Population Health&Disease Prevention.

    He and fellow scientists at UCI and UC Davis crunched, leached and measured the tiny, multicolored lightbulbs sold in Christmas strands; 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, but in general, high-intensity, brighter bulbs had more contaminants than lower ones. White bulbs had the least lead, but contained high amounts of nickel.

    "We find the low-intensity red LEDs exhibit significant cancer and noncancer potentials due to the high content of arsenic and lead," the team wrote in the January 2011 issue of Environmental Science&Technology, referring to the holiday lights. Results from the larger lighting products will be published later, but according to Ogunseitan, "it's more of the same."

    Lead, arsenic and many additional metals discovered in the bulbs or their related parts have been linked in hundreds of studies to different cancers, neurological damage, kidney disease, hypertension, skin rashes and other illnesses. The copper used in some LEDs also poses an ecological threat to fish, rivers and lakes.

    Risks are present in all parts of the lights and at every stage during production, use and disposal, the study found. Consumers, manufacturers and first responders to accident scenes ought to be aware of this, Ogunseitan said. When bulbs break at home, residents should sweep them up with a special broom while wearing gloves and a mask, he advised. Crews dispatched to clean up car crashes or broken traffic fixtures should don protective gear and handle the material as hazardous waste. Currently, LEDs are not classified as toxic and are disposed of in regular landfills. Ogunseitan has forwarded the study results to California and federal health regulators.

    He cites LEDs as a perfect example of the need to mandate product replacement testing. The diodes are widely hailed as safer than compact fluorescent bulbs, which contain dangerous mercury, but says they weren't properly tested before being marketed as the preferred alternative to incandescent bulbs, which are no longer allowed to be made under California law. A state regulation originally set to take effect Jan. 1 would have required advance testing of such replacement products but the even higher costs on top of banning traditional bulbs were opposed by industry groups and a less stringent version was substituted.


    "I'm frustrated, but the work continues," said Ogunseitan, a member of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control's Green Ribbon Science Panel. He said makers of LEDs and other items could easily reduce chemical concentrations or redesign them with truly safer materials. "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," he said. "And it's a preventable risk."

    Comments

    Two important things in this article:
    Tech Laws always need in depth, and independant, studies before being voted
    Never underestimate the importance of recycling. We can no longer fill our landfills wih toxic waste, every new product should come with a clean way on how to dispose of it, even the smallest ones such as LEDs.

    One sad thing: The title...Go back to to living in the dark is probably much, much cleaner...

    In my opinion, and I believe it is supported by an endless list of real world examples, "...in depth, and independent, studies..." will make little difference in the decision making processes of our elected government representatives.

    Briefly, from my perspective:
    - background analysis of information or studies on issues coming up for vote are delegated to support staff, and often interns. While they may be competent political science, law or journalism professionals few have formal scientific or engineering experience necessary for grasping technical material.
    - the delegate creates a short summary for the elected official's advisory team to skim through; and by short, I mean as brief as possible using small words. I refer to this as "thinking in Power Point" and rarely preserves key information in context.
    - the advisory team collaborates with an image consultant / marketing consultant to use these distilled pieces of information, that may or may not include the salient elements of the topic, to manufacture the elected official's "position" on the issue.
    - the position is vetted against recent public opinion polls and known opinions of donors and lobbyiests that contribute to the elected official's re-election campaign fund.
    - a final position paper is developed and the elected official is coached on proper delivery of "his" message.

    - After several iterations of the above, the official votes on the issue without reading any supporting information or true understanding of the topic.

    In the end, valuable resources, time and money are consumed in the process of creating the supporting materials with little meaningful impact on the outcome and scant consideration of the costs of additional regulation implementation and on-going enforcement. Regulation implementation without enforcement creates the conditions for the next round of class action law suits to further enrich members of the legal community, which leads us to the topic of tort reform...

    Humans act on emotion and attempts to legislate intelligence or rational behavior is in itself an irrational act.

    Entirely my opinion, expect your mileage to vary.

    "Lead, arsenic and many additional metals discovered in the bulbs or their related parts have been linked in hundreds of studies to different cancers, neurological damage, kidney disease, hypertension, skin rashes and other illnesses. The copper used in some LEDs also poses an ecological threat to fish, rivers and lakes."

    And elsewhere he mentions nickel. This all seems a bit extreme. Can you say "metallophobia"? I'd just like to point out that US coins are made out of copper and nickel. Should I be afraid of handling my pocket change?

    I have several LED lights in my house and they seem to me an excellent replacement for incandescents and CFLs, the only drawback being the current high cost. Unlike CFLs they're quite rugged so I don't expect them to break or need replacing any time in the next decade.

    While I do appreciate that testing is being done, there is a flaw in the testing process. As LEDs are generally solid state components, people will not be exposed to significant levels of toxic compounds even if the bulb physically breaks. In this test they ground the LEDs to a powder, then chemically leached the chemicals out. The mercury in CFLs do directly expose people if they break, but in LEDs the metals etc would be contained within the plastic shell except along fracture lines.

    While LEDs do pose a relevant and considerable disposal concern and should be properly recycled or treated as toxic waste, in the operation phase of their life they really don't carry the same health concerns as CFLs.

    Hank
    I agree.  There's a 'balance' issue, in that everyone outside Treehugger and PG&E regards CFLs as much worse than anything regular light bulbs are doing to the environment, so one article taking a minor dig at LEDs is at least fair.   But they really are not the same level of risk.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    What I think is completely insane is that here in Australia we can no longer buy the incandescent light bulbs. Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs) and halogen bulbs are often the only options and most people have CFLs throughout their houses and workplaces and they are often swinging on hooks at the local supermarket checkouts along with the sweets and batteries.

    The majority of people in Australia are not even aware of the hazards of breaking CFLs or that the government advises evacuating the room for at least 15 minutes, wearing gloves and using duct tape to clear up any breakages and sealing the contents in a glass jar.

    All over Australia people must be accidentally breaking these CFLs which contain at least .5 mg of mercury and often quite a bit more mercury depending on how old they are, and then sweeping and/or vacuuming up the debris and turning their vacuum cleaners into permanent mercury vapour generating machines. Not many people know that any carpets, bedding or clothing that have been directly exposed to the mercury in all broken CFL bulbs should be disposed of and not washed. An interesting study would be to see how many household garbage bins and vacuum cleaners throughout Australia contain unsafe levels of mercury powder from broken CFLs, after at least one year now of Federal Government imposed usage?

    How can governments impose these supposedly 'green' CFLs onto the population without educating us first and giving us safe disposal and recycling methods? Most local councils don't even have recycling options for the CFLs which are often just being thrown into landfill rubbish dumps and then leaching into the waterways and polluting both fish and the environment. OK power stations are also polluting the environment but why introduce an alternative as 'green' when it is still an environmentally unfriendly pollutant?

    I rang a local council rubbish tip about about a year ago and asked the council worker who answered if they had CFL recycling facilities and at that time they still didn't. The same employee told me that CFLs are breaking around him daily in his workplace and no one had told him it was a problem.

    In Australia recently, there has been a significant increase in the number of reported cases of Motor Neurone Disease (MND), a neural illness that closely resembles mercury poisoning in its symptoms. My mother was recently diagnosed with this illness after the council fitted over 30 free and slightly outdated, higher mercury content CFLs throughout her house. The CFLs did not fit easily into the angled ceiling sockets and I believe that several were broken in the process, but although a broken bulb register was apparently kept by the sub-contractors, they refused to tell me if any were broken at my parents' house. My mother is dead now and I haven't pursued this.

    It is well known that certain professions have a much higher incidence of developing MND and these include school principals, matrons, ballistic weapons experts and athletes. While my mother was dying of this illness we joined a support group with 8 fellow sufferers and their carers. I asked all of these people if they had been exposed to broken fluorescent lightbulbs and all of them said that they had cleaned up quite a few breakages as part of their jobs.

    Kids kicking balls often accidentally break CFLs at schools and instead of waiting for the school cleaners to turn up after school the School Principals often clean up the mess, unable to delegate this task to teachers. There were 2 school principals in their 40s in my mother's support group and both had frequently cleaned up broken CFLs oblivious to the health hazards they were exposing themselves and their pupils to. There was also a woman ballistic police officer, a matron and a motel owner in the support group, and they all said that they had also quite frequently cleared up broken CFLs unaware of the dangers of mercury poisoning. Sorry this was such a long post but I have strong feelings about the insanity surrounding this topic.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Hank
    What I think is completely insane is that here in Australia we can no longer buy the incandescent light bulbs. 
    Same in California, at least once current supply runs out.   The somewhat agenda-first person behind this study wants to detract from LEDs and isn't even willing to consider that the harm from incandescent bulbs is nowhere near the harm from alternatives.   But it's academic, literally and figuratively, because he doesn't exist in a world we live in, he straddles academia and government.
    Florida is also outlawing the incandescent bulb. I've seen several 'scientific' journals, videos, etc., that the reason incandescence are being phased out is due to the limited supply of Tungsten to make the coiled filament. They are more expensive to run, give off too much heat...blah, blah...so what's the story?

    Hank
    Nanny government.  No one had to outlaw the horse and buggy, a better alternative came along.  Blaming lightbulbs for global warming is like blaming spoons for making Rosie O'Donnell fat.
    I laughed so hard I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that! Great analogy! Expect it to be widely plagiarized, paraphrased and poorly attributed to the original author; please accept my apologies in advance!

    I completely agree about thorough testing and thinking through the handling and disposal of a new product/technology. In both CFLs and LEDs favor, is the lower volume -- since they last 10-100x longer, we'll be throwing out fewer. However, we also must consider the manufacturing processes. It is very hard these days to accurately model the entire life cycle from mine to dump.

    Not so for CFLs. If you put them somewhere where they're frequently are switched on/off, they are finished within a year, where my old candescent lived for ten.

    I live in the EU which has in its infinite wisdom started banning the sale of regular bulbs (so far the 100W and 75W versions). I admit that the majority of my bulbs are CFLs because they won't produce enough heat to cook you while providing light, but still the drawbacks are so many (from a consumer point of view):
    - they are toxic so I have to be extra careful when handling them
    - some of them die quickly due to bad quality
    - some of them produce an extremely unnatural light (almost orange)
    - a lot of them make your house smell like burnt electronics for about a week (the part under the actual bulb that contains the electronics really smell awfully in a lot of cases)
    - over time they lose a lot of their light output, after a year or so they become quite dim
    - if you want a CFL that has none of these drawbacks (except being toxic) be prepared to shell out 10€ or more per bulb

    Also I would like to know how much pollution is cause only by producing a regular bulb vs. a CFL.

    Currently halogens are best bang for buck IMO. They're compact and they come with fixtures that can handle the heat by default. Still annoyingly hot in the summer though ... but pleasant in the winter, they really heat up the room :)

    State Rep Cynthia Davis, a Republican from O’Fallon, MO, has introduced the "Missouri Freedom to Own Light Bulbs Act." It stipulates that "any light bulb or light bulb accessory that is manufactured commercially or privately in Missouri and that remains within the borders of Missouri is not subject to federal law or federal regulation, including registration, under the authority of Congress to regulate interstate commerce."
    The intention being, of course, that Missourians would thus be able to produce and use their own incandescent light bulbs, free from federal interference.
    There's two things folks are jest mighty proud of around here -- their hand guns and their light bulbs!

    Hank
    The skeptical nature of most Americans, and exemplified by the Show Me State, makes progressives crazy because they want to have an expert or the government issue a proclamation and have everyone get in line like sheep.   There is zero reason why the free market is being micromanaged by the government here - this is what happened with housing and we saw how that worked out.

    Many of these rules were introduced when the economy was much different - now, driving businesses out of America and into China (really, the bulbs are better for the environment when they are shipped from China?) adds to that. 
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Well done State Rep Cynthia Davis if this 'Missouri Freedom to Own Light Bulbs Act'  ever becomes law. We need a global movement along these lines.
    There's two things folks are jest mighty proud of around here -- their hand guns and their light bulbs!
    Well, as I mentioned earlier, guns and CFLs are a very bad combination, as you have to evacuate the room for 15 minutes every time a bullet smashes a CFL bulb, and then someone has to clear up the mercury powder and broken glass with sticky duct tape and then throw out the carpet, bedding or furniture affected. Very time consuming and expensive to the health and the pocket!
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Way to go California! let's get rid of tried and true old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, and replace them with CFL's and LED's that have toxic materials inside them. Have you ever looked at the EPA website to see how to clean up after a CFL bulb breaks? Put on your enviro suit, because it is a toxic waste cleanup. If you broke an incandescent bulb, you just swept up the pieces and threw them away. Not any longer. Sounds like these LED bulbs are just as bad for the environment too.

    MikeCrow
    To release the toxic materials in a LED, you'd have to disassemble it with a hammer, and then crush it to a powder. And before we all make a big deal of their disposal, we need to make a big deal about disposal of all semiconductor based electronics. And god forbid you carry a cell phone around with you, it's chock full of toxins!

    I remember as a kid, every now and then playing with little balls of mercury, and other than all the ticks, and the slurred speech, I'm perfectly normal ;)
    Never is a long time.
    logicman
    For those of you who have never come across it before, here is a biodegradable non-toxic light bulb.


    Ute biodegradable lamp

    Marvelous stuff, quartz!  Mind you, it'll never replace whale oil lamps!  ;-)
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    OK, maybe I'm being very thick but where's the quartz?
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    logicman
    The Uncompahgre Ute Indians from Central Colorado are one of the first documented groups of people in the world credited with the application of mechanoluminescence involving the use of quartz crystals to generate light. The Ute constructed special ceremonial rattles made from buffalo rawhide which they filled with clear quartz crystals collected from the mountains of Colorado and Utah. When the rattles were shaken at night during ceremonies, the friction and mechanical stress of the quartz crystals impacting together produced flashes of light visible through the translucent buffalo hide.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triboluminescence

    A variant mechanism used by other so-called 'primitive' peoples uses the piezoelectric principle to ignite fur inside a rattle so as to produce 'magic' smoke.  Sorry, I have no reference for the smoking rattle at the moment.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Wow, thanks for that information Patrick. I have a large collection of crystals, much to my husband's disgust, after having returned from most overseas trips with suitcases stuffed with rocks which he had to carry. I'm sure I have some quartz crystals from Colorado and Utah somewhere! I'm going to go and try and make a Uncompahgre Ute.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    logicman
    Helen: you are quite welcome.

    If you put some crystals in a dish and shake it around in a darkened room you should be able to see flashes of light if the substance is triboluminescent.  The effect has to do with the study of surfaces rubbing together - tribology.  It's a fascinating area, usually confined to dry stuff about oil and bearing surfaces and such.  Sometimes, though, it is fascinating - to me, at least.

    Did you know that you can generate X-rays with scotch tape?

    Sometimes, the journal Nature shines a light on a strange, dust-mitey corner of science, and you find yourself staring at an unimaginably weird creature/experiment.
    wired.com
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Did you know that you can generate X-rays with scotch tape?
    What, you must mean while you are cleaning up the mercury powder from your broken compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) using scotch or duct tape? As recommended by the government here at http://www.climatechange.gov.au/what-you-need-to-know/lighting/resources/fs.aspx#how
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    logicman
    ... while you are cleaning up the mercury powder from your broken compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) using scotch or duct tape?


    Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.
    Not forgetting any problem from the Bromine and Iodine gases in touted Halogen incandescent replacements,
    which are effectively themselves banned anyway by 2020 (USA) or 2016 (EU)

    Light bulb regulation updates and official links also to Canada (proposing a 2 year delay) and Australia
    http://ceolas.net/#li01inx

    Well they shouln't be. They need to be bonded to carbon to stand any chance of getting to the upper atmosphere without being washed out. Most halogens end up ionised or as oxy-halides which are quite different from the free-radical-producing beasties. Anyway the amount uses in a halogen bulb is infinitesimal compared with a can of aerosol or refrigerant.

    Good points Derek...

    I would tend to go further, in this issue of safe - unsafe bulbs:
    ALL lighting has advantages, one should be slow to ban any of them, unless really warranted on safety grounds.

    Energy saving is not the ONLY good quality a light can have for a user,
    and light bulbs don't burn coal or release CO2 gas: Power plants might.

    So - If there is a problem - Deal with the problem!

    Overall US energy savings from a switchover are less than 1%, on US Dept of Energy stats and surveys, referenced
    Ceolas.net/#li171x
    also describing more relevant electricity generation, grid and consumption savings.

    Targeting light bulbs is token green politics allowing politicians to wave funny bulbs around to show they are doing something.... at least something for the manufacturers, who sought and welcomed CFL progrrams and switchover regulations.
    Why WELCOME being told what you can or can't make? :-)
    The profit motive for GE, Philips and Osram, as admitted by them , is extensively referenced and documented here:
    http://ceolas.net/#li1ax onwards.

    Science 2 point no.
    This is awful, and unscientific.
    The lead in incandescent light bulbs made in the USA can be measured in grams, the mercury in compact fluorescents in milligrams and the arsenic in a LED lamp in micrograms. Lead has a biological half life of 20 years, mercury 20 days and arsenic 20 hours. For 40,000 hours of operation you need 25 incandescent lamps, 4 CFLs or 1 LED lamp. So, do the math. Which lamp is the most dangerous? The only reason any LED lamp contains lead is because the US hasn't any decent ROHS standard - lead in electronics is non-essential. According to the EPA, typical incandescent lamps (by typical they mean made in or for USA) do not pass the test and must be considered hazardous waste; however, they grant an exemption under 40CFR based on the inconvenience to lamp manufacturers that would otherwise have to operate a takeback program.
    But, in fact, white lighting LEDs are typically based on indium gallium nitride (blue) emitters and use a yittrium aluminum gallium phosphor to create white light - notice that there is no arsenic. Devices that use a red LED to enhance color us aluminum gallium indium phosphide emitters. So where's the arsenic? Well, somebody crushed up some old fashioned indicator LED of the gallium arsenide type and went off the deep end - soon to be followed by a lot of reactionary Ludites.
    This is an example of the same kind of science that says measles vaccine causes autism.

    Gerhard Adam
    If you want to be scientific ... how about some links?  The claim was made by UC Davis researchers, so if you have an alternative source, I'm sure most folks would be glad to see it.


    http://www.degroenerekenkamer.nl/grkfiles/images/Led%20en%20Lood.pdf

    This is awful, and unscientific.
    For the record, that statement is completely false.  It is completely scientific, since it is subject to examination, testing, and confirmation/refutation.  You may not agree with its conclusions, but it is most certainly scientific.

    Unfortunately people often confuse things that aren't true with being unscientific, however that isn't how it works.  Claiming that the Earth is flat is a completely scientific statement.  The fact that it is wrong, doesn't make the statement unscientific, although anyone that believes that despite evidence to the contrary may be delusional [or at the the very least, stubborn].
    Mundus vult decipi
    Sure - in Humpty Dumpty language :) 

    There is a heck of a difference between a proposition which can be investigated by science and one which is accepted by science. I honestly am not convinced the first is common usage at all. Do you have any evidence to suggest it is?
    Gerhard Adam
    Certainly there's a different between those two states, but it isn't a matter of being unscientific.  As for common usage, it certainly is in any text I've ever encountered dealing with the philosophy of science.  However, that's not the point.

    It is simply incorrect for anyone to label an idea they disagree with as being unscientific, when it is clearly subject to scientific scrutiny [including their own].
    Mundus vult decipi
    Oh well, as long as everyone knows what you mean by the term, we needn't worry what Popper thought.

    Gerhard Adam
    What does Popper have to do with it?  I certainly didn't argue that it was "unfalsifiable".  However, Popper certainly had his own set of problems in defining it.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Whatever. I was merely pointing out that I for one have never heard "scientific" used to mean "amenable to scientific investigation" and I very much doubt whether the OP meant it that way either.

    lead in electronics is non-essential
    I do not agree. We are forced to design with lead-free technology and the fact that the electronics industry has not ground to a halt might lead you to think lead-free electronics is a reasonable option.  But you would be wrong. Lead-free processes could, in theory, use expensive, toxic, [low melting point] alloys containing bismuth or even arsenic but industry has comparatively little experience of using these and doesn't seem keen on adopting them. So we have to settle for tin-based solders which need far higher temperatures.  Some components can be replaced by high-temperature versions but not all - there are limits to how hot you can take polymers, for example. I have lost a great deal of my own money due to failures of LEDs supposedly suitable for a lead-free process and I've seen the polyethylene capacitors fail (melt!) on a new product due to this very problem. 

    Then there are the tin whiskers which mean you cannot safely design stuff with small geometries.

    Lead-free is a damn stupid obsession but, as usual, green politics rode roughshod over practical considersations in its self-righteous crusade against a bogeyman that only became an issue in the first place because kids were chewing on lead paint and breathing the lead emissions from cars. Still, you can get turkeys to vote for Christmas if you just say the magic words "because of the children".

    On the subject of which, why do tree-huggers always seem to have so many of them?
     
    Good points Derek in the comments, also on the halogen safety above
    (splitting this - does not seem to get posted otherwise, nor did my earlier reply)

    I would tend to go further, in this issue of safe - unsafe bulbs:
    ALL lighting has advantages, one should be slow to ban any of them, unless really warranted on safety grounds.

    Energy saving is not the ONLY good quality a light can have for a user,
    and light bulbs don't burn coal or release CO2 gas: Power plants might.

    So - If there is a problem - Deal with the problem!

    Overall US energy savings from a switchover are less than 1%, grid electricity around 1%,
    on US Dept of Energy stats and surveys, EU stats etc, referenced
    http://ceolas.net/#li171x
    also describing more relevant electricity generation, grid and consumption savings

    (continued)

    Also: Targeting light bulbs is token green politics allowing politicians to wave funny bulbs around to show they are doing something.... at least something for the manufacturers, who sought and welcomed CFL progrrams and switchover regulations.
    Why WELCOME being told what you can or can't make? :-)
    The profit motive for GE, Philips and Osram, as admitted by them , is extensively referenced and documented here:
    http://ceolas.net/#li1ax onwards.
    .