The LED Light Controversy: An Energy-Efficient Dream or a Human Health Nightmare?

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Few innovations are more synonymous with sustainability than LEDs. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has played a vital role in marketing them as the greener alternative to traditional lighting products. 

The federal government has extended technical support to develop test procedures for measuring LED performance. DOE launched the LED Lighting Facts program to promote truth in advertising in 2009. It underscores product quality issues, busts inflated manufacturer claims, encourages manufacturers to adopt industry standards and helps consumers make informed purchase decisions.

After benefiting from the federal government’s push, LED products have become popular for environmentally conscious individuals, businesses and policymakers.

Still, some ring the alarm bells, saying the technology isn’t as green as advertised and may endanger public health. If you’re on the fence about LEDs, hear what their supporters and detractors say.

Arguments for LED Lights

white led light
Photo by Artem Malushenko on

Advocates generally mention these 10 benefits when making a case for LED adoption.

1. Energy Efficiency

LEDs are hyper-efficient. Energy Star-certified residential bulbs consume up to 90% less electricity than incandescent lights. They also emit minimal heat and don’t increase a space’s cooling load. Conversely, incandescents and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) convert 90% and 80% of their energy into heat.

2. Ultraviolet Radiation Emission

LED technology produces practically zero UV light. It’s an apt source of artificial illumination in places with items and materials sensitive to such electromagnetic radiation, including archeological sites, art galleries and museums.

3. Illumination Distribution

LEDs are directional, illuminating a specific area without reflectors and diffusers. This feature allows them to brighten a desired location intensely and independently. That’s why LED products make excellent task lights and recessed downlights.

4. Versatility

LED lights can emit various colors and come in wide-ranging illumination systems. They’ve advanced enough to work with dimmers, expanding their use cases further. These solid-state devices are future-ready, making them easy to incorporate into distinct installation possibilities.

5. Tunability

The color temperature of some LEDs is adjustable to match the sun’s natural progression. That’s why they’re daylighting system staples.

6. Natural Light Closeness

LEDs have excellent color rendering index (CRI) ratings. On a scale of 0-100 — 100 indicating that the objects under the light source appear as colorful as they would under sunlight — they’re in the high 90s, making them almost as close to natural light as incandescents.

7. Durability

Unlike fluorescent lamps, LEDs can remain operational in hot and cold environments. Aside from indoor settings, they can perform well outdoors and withstand the elements. No wonder step, pathway and porch lights, and solar-powered lighting fixtures have LEDs.

8. Longevity

LED products outlast conventional lighting solutions. On average, burning them out takes more than 15,000 hours — about 1,264% and 88% longer than incandescent bulbs and CFLs’ life spans.

9. Recyclability

LEDs are circular. They contain various recyclable components, like electric circuits, so you can dispose of them in the same manner as incandescents. More local recycling centers have begun accepting burned-out lighting fixtures, so LED products are less likely to end up in landfills at the end of their long lives.

10. Cost

Although LED lamps can be pricey, they’ve become dramatically more affordable. 2020 saw their price stand at $0.4 per kilolumen — about 43% lower than in 2017. Industry observers expect this number to plummet to $0.3 per kilolumen by 2050.

Arguments Against LED Lights

interior of apartment with modern furniture
Photo by Max Vakhtbovycn on

Critics recognize that nothing can touch LEDs’ energy efficiency but worry these lights present seven problems not talked about enough for the public to be aware of.

1. Glare

Poorly designed LED products can produce glare. It can happen when the light source is vastly brighter than its surroundings or so bright it scatters overwhelmingly within the eye to the point where surrounding objects look blurry to the viewer. 

2. Temporal Light Modulation

Unbeknownst to you, LED lights rapidly flicker on and off. Such flickering is consciously imperceptible but can strain eyes, give you headaches and erode visual performance.

3. Circadian Rhythm Disruption

LEDs produce too much blue light. It can negate your melatonin production derived from daylight exposure and derail your circadian rhythm, keeping you up when you should be asleep and affecting your rest quality.

Scientists are aware of this issue. One of the solutions researchers in the field have come up with is a europium-containing luminescent crystalline phosphor. Although the idea isn’t ready for prime time, it has shown some promise. When used in a violet LED device with a silicone cap, it generated a sleep-friendly warm white light while reducing intensity across blue wavelengths for nighttime use. 

4. Phototoxicity

A 2021 study found that LEDs’ blue light may injure the retina, which may lead to central vision degradation, accelerated aging of eyes and vision loss. More research is necessary, but designing warmer LEDs may ease this health concern.

5. Light Pollution

LED lighting helps make nights brighter. Light pollution can negatively impact how birds navigate, sea turtles mate and darkness-reliant insects survive.

6. Arsenic and Lead Content

LEDs don’t have mercury like CFLs do, but they can be as hazardous. Manufacturers may dope silicon with arsenic to produce an n-type semiconductor and add trace amounts of lead to insulation and wire coating. These toxic substances can harm human health and the environment.

7. Natural Resource Depletion

LED lighting systems may have high aluminum, copper, gold, silver and zinc content. Unethically sourcing these metals can disrupt a location’s ecological balance, drive habitat loss, and endanger the public’s health and safety.

What’s the Verdict?

LED naysayers have a leg to stand on. Fortunately, the tech’s proponents acknowledge and address the skeptics’ concerns. Innovation and the circular economy can reverse LED lighting’s known negatives, making it an even bigger net positive for society.

  • Emily Newton

    Emily Newton is a freelance writer with over six years of experience writing environmental articles. She’s also the Editor-In-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine sharing the latest science and technology innovations. When she isn’t writing, you can find her reading a new book or building a Lego set.

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