Dear EarthTalk: Are there health or environmental concerns with LED lightbulbs, which may soon replace compact fluorescents as the green-friendly light bulb of choice? -- Mari-Louise, via e-mail
Indeed, LED (light emitting diode) lighting does seem to be the wave of the future right now, given the mercury content and light quality issues with the current king-of-the-hill of green bulbs, the compact fluorescent (CFL). LEDs use significantly less energy than even CFLs, and do not contain mercury. And they are becoming economically competitive with CFLs at the point of purchase while yielding superior quality lighting and energy bill savings down the line.
|LED bulbs appear poised to displace compact
fluorescents (CFLs) as the king-of-the-hill of
green bulbs, but a study published in late 2010
in the journal Environmental Science and
Technology found that LEDs contain lead,
arsenic and a dozen other potentially danger-
ous substances. Credit iStock/Thinkstock
But LEDs do have a dark side. A study published in late 2010 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that LEDs contain lead, arsenic and a dozen other potentially dangerous substances. LEDs are touted as the next generation of lighting,” says Oladele Ogunseitan, one of the researchers behind the study and chair of the University of California (UC)-Irvine’s Department of Population Health & Disease Prevention. “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] toxicity hazards….”
Ogunseitan and other UC-Irvine researchers tested several types of LEDs, including those used as Christmas lights, traffic lights, car headlights and brake lights. What did they find? Some of the worst offenders were low-intensity red LEDs, which were found to contain up to eight times the amount of lead, a known neurotoxin, allowed by California state law and which, according to researchers, “exhibit significant cancer and noncancer potentials due to the high content of arsenic and lead.” Meanwhile, white LEDs contain the least lead, but still harbor large amounts of nickel, another heavy metal that causes allergic reactions in as many as one in five of us upon exposure. And the copper found in some LEDs can pose an environmental threat if it accumulates in rivers and lakes where it can poison aquatic life.
Ogunseitan adds that while breaking open a single LED and breathing in its fumes wouldn’t likely cause cancer, our bodies hardly need more toxic substances floating around, as the combined effects could be a disease trigger. If any LEDs break at home, Ogunseitan recommends sweeping them up while wearing gloves and a mask, and disposing of the debris -- and even the broom -- as hazardous waste. Furthermore, crews dispatched to clean up car crashes or broken traffic lights (LEDs are used extensively for automotive and traffic lighting) should wear protective clothing and handle material as hazardous waste. LEDs are currently not considered toxic by law and can be disposed of in regular landfills.
According to Ogunseitan, LED makers could easily reduce the concentrations of heavy metals in their products or even redesign them with truly safer materials, especially if state or federal regulators required them to do so. “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 concludes. “And it’s a preventable risk.”
Of course, we all need some kind of lighting in our lives and, despite their flaws, LEDs may still be the best choice regarding light quality, energy use and environmental footprint. That said, researchers are busy at work on even newer lighting technologies that could render even today’s green choices obsolete.
CONTACT: UC-Irvine study, www.pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es101052q?prevSearch=irvine%2Bled.
Dear EarthTalk: What is “pesticide drift” and should I be worried about it?
-- Nicole Kehoe, Burlington, VT
If you live near a big farm or an otherwise frequently manicured landscape, “pesticide drift”—drifting spray and dust from pesticide applications—could be an issue for you and yours. Indeed, pesticide drift is an insidious threat to human health as well as to wildlife and ecosystems in and around agricultural and even residential areas where harsh chemicals are used to ward off pests. The biggest risk from pesticide drift is to those living, working or attending school near larger farms which employ elevated spraying equipment or crop duster planes to apply chemicals to crops and fields. Children are especially vulnerable to these airborne pesticides, given that their young bodies are still growing and developing.
|Pesticide drift is an insidious threat to human health as
well as to wildlife and ecosystems in and around agri-
cultural and even residential areas where harsh chemicals
are used to ward off pests. Children are especially vulner-
“When pesticides are sprayed they can drift and settle on playgrounds, porches, laundry, toys, pools, furniture and more,” reports the non-profit Pesticide Action Network (PAN). “Some of the most toxic pesticides in use in the U.S. today are also the most drift prone, and yet this common route of exposure remains largely invisible.”
“Even the most careful, responsible pesticide sprayer cannot control what happens to pesticide droplets once they are released from his plane or tractor,” the group adds. “And when conditions are right, these droplets can end up settling on someone’s yard, on another farmer’s crops, or on the skin of someone who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.” PAN cites research showing that upwards of 95 percent of applied pesticides miss their target, reaching nearby people and wildlife, waterways, soil and air instead. Besides this “spray drift,” PAN also warns of so-called “volatilization drift”—whereby pesticides evaporate into the air from off of crops or out of the soil for up to several days following an application.
Thanks in large part to advocacy by PAN and other groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made strides in protecting more of us against pesticide drift. In late 2009 the agency rolled out new guidelines directing pesticide manufacturers to include labeling on their products indicating how to minimize off-target spray and dust drift. Any spray pesticides manufactured or labeled as of January 2012 and for sale in the U.S. must display the warning on its label: “Do not apply this product in a manner that results in spray (or dust) drift that harms people or any other non-target organisms or sites.”
The EPA is also conducting and monitoring new research on the science of pesticide drift to better understand how it works so regulations can be tailored to mitigate its impact. The agency’s Drift Reduction Technology Project is working with three leading universities to test a wide range of nozzles, hoods, shields and other aids to minimize drift during ground and aerial applications of pesticides.
Even though spray pesticides are now labeled and 28 states have drift spray regulations on their books, pesticide drift continues to be a problem wherever crops are grown. If pesticide drift is an issue where you live, work, study or play, contact PAN. The group can send out a “Drift Catcher”—a device that collects air samples which can then be analyzed for pesticides. “It enables farmworkers and community members to document and draw attention to otherwise invisible chemical exposures,” says PAN.
CONTACTS: PAN, www.panna.org; EPA, ww.epa.gov/pesticides/factsheets/spraydrift.htm.
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