As humans, it’s in our nature to strive for excellence. For the lighting industry, this means that products are continually getting brighter and more efficient as new technologies emerge.
One such innovation is LEDs, which first came onto the scene in 1962.
Praised for their long lifespans, durability, energy efficiency, immediate start-ups, and lack of heat, it’s easy to perceive LEDs as the full package. But is this too good to be true?
Although they contain hazardous materials, such as lead and nickel, LEDs are considered safe because the concentration of these substances is so minimal. Beyond the obvious dangers of shattered glass, broken LEDs have no dangerous implications and can easily be disposed of.
So it seems that the lighting industry has come a long way since the era of mercury-ridden fluorescent bulbs. But I’m sure some of you are still apprehensive – surely, any exposure to hazardous materials is reckless?
I want to explain why this is not the case. Keep reading to learn about the real dangers of LED bulbs, including a full analysis of the hazardous materials.
What Are The Dangers of Broken LED Bulbs?
Although the average lifespan of an LED is 50,000 hours, let’s face it… accidents happen!
Whether your LEDs are cracked during a collision, or shattered while changing out a busted bulb, the point is that LEDs are not invincible.
As with any glass object, the bulb surrounding an LED chip is fragile and cannot handle much pressure. Upon impact, it will shatter into thousands of tiny, razor-sharp pieces.
Since they’re translucent, these fragments can be difficult to detect, but if they’re stood on, they will rip the skin, cause bleeding, and may require stitches!
If you have a lucky escape and your LED bulb cracks but doesn’t shatter, it’s good news. Providing that the diode itself has not been disturbed, it should continue to emit light as usual.
Unlike other conventional bulbs, the glass of an LED is not filled with gas. The LED doesn’t need the glass bulb to function; it merely serves aesthetic purposes.
A cracked bulb may be more prone to vibrational damage, but beyond this, there is no element of danger.
Do LED Bulbs Contain Mercury?
Let’s get this straight: LEDs do not contain the slightest trace of mercury.
Unlike their predecessors, LEDs generate light using a semiconductor. No mercury is required for this process, which means, despite their imperfections, LEDs are seen as an environmentally friendly lighting solution.
But what’s so bad about mercury?
When heated, mercury turns to a colorless, odorless vapor that is used in CFLs to excite the tungsten coils electrons. Exposure to mercury is extremely harmful, especially for children and babies.
A low level of exposure can result in fatigue, brain fuzz, and lack of concentration. Long term exposure, whereas, may cause neuromuscular issues such as muscle atrophy, tremors, and weakness.
A 2008 study by Environmental Health Perspective estimates that CFLs typically contain around 3 to 5 milligrams of mercury.
Once broken, this mercury vapor can escape into the air in your home or property and manifest there for weeks.
So this explains why CFL and fluorescent bulbs require careful handling and disposal if they burn out or get broken.
Other Dangerous Materials
Unfortunately, LEDs have their fair share of demons.
Research by the University of California found that the internal components of an LED contain toxic materials such as arsenic, lead, iron, copper, and nickel.
Exposure to these materials is extremely harmful and can cause long term health implications.
Increased exposure to arsenic, for instance, increases the risk of cancer, diabetes, and skin lesions.
Interestingly, the concentration of these substances varies depending on the type of LED.
The 2010 study found that red LEDs are typically the worst offenders, as they contain eight times more lead than other colors of LED.
Yes, you read that right… eight!
But these materials are not just hazardous to humans, they also harm the planet. Copper does not decompose, which means that when it accumulates in the environment it can result in copper poisoning in microorganisms and marine wildlife.
At this stage, you’re probably wondering, “so why are these materials not classified as toxic by law?”.
To put it simply, the level of each toxic material in an LED is minuscule. Under Title 22, Californian law sets out the maximum weight of harmful substances permitted per kilogram. LEDs fall way below this limit.
While I certainly don’t recommend cracking open an LED and breathing in its fumes. Exposure to these toxic materials in such minute amounts is unlikely to have any nasty consequences.
What Should You Do With Broken LED
With all of this in mind, you may be surprised to learn that broken LEDs do not require any special disposal. Since they are not classified as toxic, they can be thrown in with your regular trash – though, of course, I recommend recycling where possible.
LEDs may only contain small amounts of harmful substances, but humans hardly need more exposure to toxicity. What I’m saying is that it’s still essential to follow safety precautions.
If your LED bulb breaks, try not to panic. Here’s what you need to do:
From here, you can dispose of the broken LED. For a full rundown of LED disposal, including how to recycle broken LEDs, check out my other article.
To summarise: yes, LEDs contain toxic materials in the form of arsenic, lead, iron, copper, and nickel.
But the quantity of these materials is so minuscule that a broken LED presents no real threat to humans.
So where do we go from here?
Well, there is still work to be done. Manufacturers should be looking for a way to reduce the number of toxic materials used in LEDs. But for now, this is as good as it gets.
Did you know about the dangers of LEDs before reading this article?
What do you think – does the media overplay or underplay these issues?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.