Welcome to the Light Show

Courtesy of Maxine Wally

When deducing risk assessment, it is most important to consider the worst-case scenario, says professor of public health and social ecology Oladele Ogunseitan. For his latest research, that scenario is the leaching of unusually high levels of lead and other hazardous materials from LED lights.

Light Emitting Diodes are popular electroluminescent bulbs that can be found in a multitude of products in the household, including decorations with colored lights, jewelry and pacifiers.

Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California law regulate amounts of lead and arsenic that are inevitably found in LED, but Ogunseitan’s research has led him and his team to findings of a pressing nature.

“We found red lights with low-intensity bulbs that are most commonly used for Christmas decorations to have concerning levels of lead in them,” he said. “Green, yellow, blue and white lights did not pose as intense of a threat as red ones.”

To test lead emissions, Ogunseitan crushed the lights, added an acidic solution, allowed the mixture to fuse for a few hours, filtered and then analyzed the supernatant water that had settled on top.

“For California, the limit of lead that can leach out is 1,000 mg/kg,” Ogunseitan said. “In these lights, we found up to 8,000 mg/kg, so that was a big sign saying it was far too much.”

This issue even goes as far as the disposal of the lights themselves; no direction is given to consumers concerning proper disposal of these potentially harmful items, and many get rid of the lights after they run out in highly unsafe ways.

To further exacerbate the situation, these lights have an extremely short life expectancy — that is, they run out, break and are disposed of in high turnover.

“Now, we’re in a different mode of lighting technology and we need to educate the public of how to dispose of waste created in the home,” Ogunseitan said.

Ogunseitan first conceived of this research in his time spent at UC Berkeley, where he received his master’s in environmental science. His interest in LED piqued when he began to seek products that could be redesigned to contain little to no mercury or lead.

“I wanted to pinpoint a highly efficient bulb that is non-toxic and can be safely gotten rid of at the end of its life,” Ogunseitan said.

Collaborating with partners in Germany, the team of scientists tried using different models that could evoke the worst-case scenario of toxic leaching in everyday use, such as grinding, stepping on or crushing the lights.

Toxicity became an issue in 2008, when government tests questioned the safety of items potentially containing Bisphenol A (BPA). This organic compound that caused disfiguration, cancer and fetal issues was found in children’s layette including pacifiers, bottles, teething rings and chew toys.

Since then, laws restricting toxicity levels have become more stringent, but Ogunseitan and his research indicate a need for deeper searching.

“We need to keep our eyes out for hazardous materials sitting around, but at the same time we must acknowledge the efficiency found in things like LED, which is clearly leading the field,” Ogunseitan said.

On a global level, the problem is considerably worse.

“When we think about the consumer and the amount of people that need these types of items, there is a surge in products, which creates a worst-case scenario for sure. Lack of knowledge shifts the risk to the poor, who can buy these things for cheap,” Ogunseitan said. “We can’t afford it and we ultimately will pay for it.”

An advocate for energy conservation and further research in the field of alternate forms of lights, Ogunseitan continues to do work in the movement of conservation.

“We can minimize and we can do better by limiting leaching of toxic waste,” Ogunseitan said. “We can make people aware to ensure safe disposal of these materials.”