Light emitting diodes aren't considered toxic -- yet. But that may change if legislators take heed of new research from the University of Calif. at Irvine.
Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of UC Irvine’s Dept. of Population Health & Disease Prevention has led a team that crushed, leached and measured the tiny, multicolored LEDs sold in Christmas strands; red, yellow and green traffic lights; and automobile headlights and brake lights. They concluded that low-intensity red LEDs contained up to eight times the amount of lead allowed under California law. Worse, high-intensity, brighter bulbs had more contaminants than lower ones. White bulbs contained the least lead, but had high levels of nickel.
They recently published their results in the January 2011 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, an online publication. Ogunseitan said that breaking a single light and breathing fumes would not automatically cause cancer, but could be a tipping point on top of chronic exposure to another carcinogen. And – noting that lead tastes sweet – he warned that small children could be harmed if they mistake the bright Christmas lights for candy.
Fortunately, Ogunseitan stops short of recommending hazmat suits when LEDs break in your house. When bulbs break at home, residents should sweep them up with a special broom while wearing gloves and a mask, he advised. But he also claims crews dispatched to clean up car crashes or broken traffic fixtures should don protective gear and handle the material as hazardous waste.
Currently, LEDs are not classified as toxic and are disposed of in regular landfills. Ogunseitan has forwarded the study results to California and federal health regulators.
You can find the article online here, though nonsubscribers must pay a fee to view it: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es101052q?prevSearch=%2528Oladele%2BOgunseitan%2529%2BNOT%2B%255Batype%253A%2Bad%255D%2BNOT%2B%255Batype%253A%2Bacs-toc%255D&searchHistoryKey=
The Physorg.com site also picked up this item from a UC-Irvine press release. Commentors chiming in at the end make some good points, including the observation that there are no "fumes" when someone happens to crush an LED, and that the lead they are worried about comes from the circuit board the LED is soldered to, not from the LED itself