Are your Christmas lights killing you?

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid...

First, it was the mercury in our CFL bulbs that was going to kill us. Now, a blog post from the Orange County Register, headlined “Eco-friendly bulbs loaded with lead, arsenic” will – I guarantee – help gin up a phony scare about lead in LED bulbs.

The Register‘s science blogger, Pat Brennan, writes: “the LED bulbs sold as safe and eco-friendly can contain high levels of lead, arsenic and other hazardous substances” which “could increase the risk of cancer, kidney disease and other illnesses.” Brennan’s source is a study (PDF) from the University of California Irvine.

The study looked at lights from a single manufacturer. Of those lights, the only offenders are low-intensity red holiday lights, which contain 8,103 mg/kg of lead, far exceeding California regulatory standards for lead (but still within federal standards).

Bulbs of other colors contained either minuscule traces of lead, or none at all. White bulbs – the kind used in most household lighting applications – “exhibit relatively low toxicity potentials because they contain less copper and do not contain arsenic or lead” (emphasis mine).

So the post’s headline – which is all that most people will read as it bounces around the web – is simply wrong. The vast majority of LED bulbs are not “loaded” with lead or arsenic.

But, of course, some are, and any amount of lead is a bad thing to have in the house. So how much should we all freak out about this?

The study says the bulbs weigh 300 mg each. At 8,103 mg/kg, that means an individual bulb contains about 2.4 mg of lead (coincidentally, that’s about the same amount of mercury you’ll find in one of those oh-so-scary CFL bulbs).

According to the EPA, 28 tons of lead were emitted from U.S. power plants (predominantly from burning coal) in 2005. That’s the equivalent of (drumroll)… 25 billion of those little red LED bulbs.

Forest, meet the trees.

Photo by Lady T via Creative Commons

3 thoughts on “Are your Christmas lights killing you?

  1. As important as the pollutants themselves are the pathways the pollutants follow. CFL bulbs have low recycling rates, so many end up in landfills. Unless the landfill is a lined and contained pit with no water leakage, there is good potential for these poisons to get into surface waters. And depending on the form of the mercury, there is also potential for offgassing from uncovered landfill pits.

    The threats should not be overplayed, nor should they be underplayed.

  2. Completely agree. But the point is that the mercury and lead pollution from burning coal is far, far worse than anything we could ever in our wildest dreams imagine to see from improper disposal of light bulbs. Yet it’s the light bulbs that people fret about.

  3. It’s the bulbs many fret about because of the perception that 40 years of federal air regulation has gotten rid of the other problems. The bulbs do have the smell of a red herring, to a degree, but the bigger question is about the sustainability and health of our overall societal demands. Both coal and CFL bulbs are problematic. By all means, go after coal. EPA is doing so, with upcoming Clean Air Transport and utility boiler rulemakings. These need public understanding and support. But let’s get more bulbs into the recycling stream, too.