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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

Ken Paulman

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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