Brighter Lights May Lead to Dimmer Futures: The Hidden Dangers of Eco-Friendly Alternatives

The National Mall has recently received another makeover.  On the tails of Congressional legislation banning the manufacture of traditional 100-watt incandescent bulbs and similar measures pending in the future,[1] LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) have been installed in all the lanterns lining the walkways, replacing the old lighting.[2]  While the lights are brighter, more efficient, and longer lasting,[3] the safety of the bulbs and the risks to citizens are not fully known.[4]  While may seem like a minor change with negligible effects on the population, it is possible in the government’s haste to take ‘green’ steps and be more eco-friendly, it has jeopardized the health of the millions of tourists and citizens who visit the Mall every year.

A recent study conducted by the University of California at Irvine found that LEDs may not be as eco-friendly or safe as was once believed.[5]  The study found the bulbs contain “lead, arsenic, and a dozen other potentially hazardous substances,” which present serious cancer and other risks to consumers exposed to the products.[6]  In addition to the dangers posed to users, the copper in LEDs “poses an ecological threat to fish, rivers and lakes.”[7]  These risks require careful handling from installation to use, especially if they break and expose individuals nearby to fumes and other dangers.[8]  Another study suggests the brighter light may suppress melatonin production, resulting in “behavior disruptions and health problems.”[9]  Although these risks have not been acknowledged by the government, the mere possibility should give pause to the broad changes being made.

These efforts represent a potentially dangerous trend: the rush to rid ourselves of environmentally destructive objects and habits without knowing the effects or safety of the alternatives with which we are replacing things.  For example, another alternative to incandescent light bulbs are the compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs).  These bulbs are brighter and use less energy but also, as with any fluorescent bulb, contain mercury.[10]  This requires the bulbs to be carefully handled and properly disposed of to prevent individual exposure or environmental harm.  Many everyday consumers may not be aware of these risks or the proper method of disposal.  In addition, the onslaught of the electric car is a welcomed replacement to the gasoline-powered engine.  While these vehicles will reduce problematic emissions, the creation of the batteries for these electric vehicles requires excessive copper mining.[11]  Also, if the power grid on which the car is being charged is powered by coal or oil, it negates the positive environmental effects of using cleaner energy.[12] This does not even include the emissions from the factories which produce these cars.  In the end, these switches are essentially trading one harm for a different one. It is almost as if society is collectively panicking about living at Chernobyl and hastily moving to a new neighborhood… called Love Canal.

It is important to continue to innovate and find solutions to the environmental destruction our everyday lives seem to inevitably bring. But forcing broad changes without completely understanding their effects could prove to be more destructive in the long run and put citizens at risk. Maybe we need to require environmental impact statements for new technologies or require more rigorous testing like the Food and Drug administration does for new drugs, instead of flooding the market with new products and learning the dangers as time goes on.  The goal cannot simply be to make something “better” but to make something “good,” which requires cautious, deliberate steps.

 – By Lauren Watson, Senior Production Editor 


[1] David Shaffer, “Lights Go Down on the 100-watt Bulb,” Star Tribune, Jan. 1, 2012, available at: http://www.startribune.com/business/136510173.html.

[2] Wendy Koch, “The National Mall Gets New More Efficient LED Lighting,” USA Today, Jan. 31, 2012, available at http://content.usatoday.com/communities/greenhouse/post/2012/01/leds-light-the-national-mall-boost-energy-efficiency/1?csp=34news.

[3] Id.

[4] “The Dangers of White LED Bulbs,” Science 2.0, Sept. 12, 2011, available at: http://www.science20.com/news_articles/dangers_white_led_bulbs-82532.

[5] Seong-Rin Lim, et. al, Potential Environmental Impacts of Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs): Metallic Resources, Toxicity, and Hazardous Waste Classification, 45.1 Environ. Sci. & Tech. 320, (2011).

[6] Janet Wilson, “LED Products Contain Toxic Metals, Study Finds,” Univ. of Cal. Newsroom, Feb. 10, 2011, available at: http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/24962.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. The researchers suggested that residents sweep up broken  bulbs “with a special broom while wearing gloves and a mask,” and hazard waste crews be dispatched to accident scenes, broken traffic fixtures and other similar incidents wearing protective gear.

[9] “The Dangers of White LED Bulbs,” supra note 4.

[10] Shaffer, supra note 1.

[11] A study conducted by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne’s Illinois Sustainable Technology Center detailing numerous problems with copper mining can be found at: http://www.istc.illinois.edu/info/library_docs/manuals/primmetals/chapter5.htm.

[12] Micheal Moyer, The Dirty Truty about Plug-In Hybrids: How Green is that Electric Car? Depends on Where You Plug It In, Scientific American, June 22, 2010.

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