Health Risks of High Power LED Lights

Doctor examining an x-ray
Don't stare directly into an LED light. (Image: DAJ/amana images/Getty Images)

Light-emitting diodes, more commonly called LEDs, are used in a variety of ways, including in automotive and home lighting, video displays and traffic signals. LEDs are energy efficient and can last up to three years. They’re also easier to recycle than the compact fluorescent lighting bulbs due to the mercury content in CFLs. An LED is a semiconductor diode that releases energy in the form of light when it’s switched on. There are a couple of health concerns to be aware of when it comes to LEDs.

Worries for the Workplace

Red LEDs are made from a toxic substance called aluminum gallium arsenide, or AGA. Not much information exists about adverse health impacts that workers who are exposed to these particles face, but increased use of AGA has raised concern regarding occupational exposure, says A.Tanaka, lead author for a study published in “Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology.” AGA, a semiconductor material, has been scientifically proven to be toxic to animals, however. Chronic and acute toxicity causes kidney, lung and reproductive organ problems in animals, Tanaka notes. Given that, Tanaka recommends paying much greater attention to human exposure to such semiconductor materials.

Consumer Concerns

LED lights have been criticized by people who are worried they’ll cause damage to the retina of your eye. Accumulation of cellular debris called lipofuscin in your retinal pigment epithelium is responsible for the damage. However, the amount of harm an LED lamp can cause depends on the built-in protection of the product, according to Dan Roberts, director of Macular Degeneration Support, a nonprofit organization based in Missouri. The bigger and brighter the illumination source, the more potential risk it has for your retina. Small white LEDs in lamps are unlikely to lead to many problems, Roberts says. Proximity and whether you take reasonable precautions are other factors. For example, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection suggests that you should not look directly into a light box from up close for longer than a maximum of 100 seconds. LED are directional lights, meaning they don’t radiate light 360 degrees like CFLs do, notes the Environmental Protection Agency. Blue light waves are more likely to cause harm to the retina among people who are prone to macular issues due to aging, environment, genetics or health habits, Roberts says.

The Good News

LED lights are actually less likely to cause adverse health impacts than other high-efficiency bulbs such as compact floursecent lights -- CFLs, because they don’t produce what “Zapped” author Ann Louise Gittleman refers to as “dirty electricity.” She says that CFLS “dirty electricity” that can lead to chronic fatigue syndrome, which is characterized by muscle aches, weakness and fatigue, and may also may cause headaches, depression, aches and pains, dizziness, memory loss or confusion; and impaired sleep.

If you choose CFLs over LEDs, you can combat “dirty electricity” with filters, notes Paul Henderson in the Vitality magazine article, “Why Your Appliances Might be Making You Sick.” Some people are more prone to be affected by “dirty electricity” due to electrical hypersensitivity, or EHS, Henderson notes. According to the World Health Organization, EHS is characterized by a variety of symptoms that are non-specific and differ among individuals. WHO says the symptoms are real, and can even be a disabling problem, though they may be due to other environmental factors like poor indoor air quality or poor ergonomic design of computer work stations. No diagnostic criteria for EHS existed as of 2010. WHO advises doctors to focus on health symptoms rather than a person's perceived need for eliminating or reducing exposure to “dirty electricity.”

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