Blue light emitted from the LED lights is a cause of worry for eye health, but the government has been extensively promoting use of LEDs 

The government of India has set a target of providing LED bulbs to domestic consumers with a target to replace 770 million incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs by March 2019. But there is a harmful twist in this tale of combating climate change. Although LED lighting helps in lower carbon dioxide emissions, experts say the blue light they emit is not safe for our eyes.

LED is an acronym for light-emitting diodes. Speaking at a recent World Congress of Optometry at Hyderabad, Bridgette Shen Lee, a Houston-based optometrist, warned about the increasing use of LED bulbs as these are a major source of blue light, most damaging to human eyes.

Blue-violet is part of the visible light spectrum and just as the ultraviolet light is present everywhere, so is blue light. “We all know about and talk about UV light problems. It causes damage to the anterior part of the eye. (But) blue light can impact the circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) or even the cornea depending on the wavelength of blue light that reaches the retina,” she said. “When harmful blue light penetrates the eye, it causes accelerated retinal cell damage leading to early development of age-related macular degeneration (ARMD).”

Observing that in the past several years, there has been an increase in the use of LED lighting indoors because of their energy efficiency, she said, “This is a health-related concern, as LED lights contain up to 35% of harmful blue light.”

The aged are more at risk for development of eye diseases but it is the children’s eyes that are under-developed with more transparent eye structures “so they have little natural protection against harmful light and must be protected from harmful blue light,” Shen Lee said.

“Long term exposure to blue light does cause eye strain,” Parul Sharma, head of the ophthalmology department at Max Hospital in Delhi, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

Human eyes have an inbuilt system to prevent this damage. For instance, the cornea and the lens take care of the blue light. But after a cataract surgery, doctors take care of inserting a lens with blue filter, she said, pointing out, “There have been studies done outside, but there is no Indian study about harm due to LED’s blue light.”

“Although we are convinced that exposure to blue light from LEDs in the range 470–480 nm for a short to medium period (days to a few weeks) should not significantly increase the risk of development of ocular pathologies, this conclusion cannot be generalised to a long-term exposure (months to years),” G. Tosini of the Morehouse School of Medicine at Atlanta, US, and colleagues wrote in the Molecular Vision journal.

LED lights programme

As per the government’s National Ujala Dashboard that gives real-time data about total LED lights distributed across India, more than 750 million LED bulbs and tube lights have been distributed so far. It also mentions that 36,779 million kWh of energy has been saved as a result of this and the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions has been as much as 29 million tonnes.

With a target to distribute 770 million LED bulbs by March 2019 across 100 cities, the government’s domestic efficient lighting programme called Ujala was launched in 2015 to become the largest LED distribution programme in the world. The programme aims to rectify India’s high cost of electrification and the increased emissions from inefficient lighting, amidst the backdrop of electricity demand expected to increase five-fold over the coming years.

The massive reduction in carbon dioxide emissions due to change from conventional light sources to LEDs is part of India’s energy mix under its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), submitted prior to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Streetlights represent one of the most cost-effective opportunities for energy savings and for reducing municipalities’ energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions, so the government has encouraged changing streetlights to LED in a big way. The Indian Railways has also chipped in with several of its stations being illuminated with LED lights.

Although Sharma said that there are no Indian studies on the subject, the Energy Efficiency Services Ltd (EESL), an energy services company that runs the Ujala programme for the government, quoted a study done outside India to justify the “no harm due to blue light of LEDs claim,” she said.

Ujala response

In response to the queries, Neha Bhatnagar, EESL’s Public Relations Manager, quoted a White Paper on LED General Lighting and Blue Light brought out by International Solid State Lighting Alliance (ISA), China Solid State Lighting Alliance (CSA) and China Illuminating Engineering Society (CIES).

“The paper clearly concludes that from the photo-biological safety perspective, there is a big difference between LED and other conventional light sources including incandescent and fluorescent lamps. For products with similar correlated colour temperature (CCT), the amount of blue light radiation from typical LED is not higher than from other light sources and is much lower than that from the sun. The white paper concludes that if the LED sources and lighting systems meet the safety standards, they are completely safe,” she told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

“The LED bulbs provided under Ujala include necessary safety features such as phosphorus coating along with optical diffusers, minimising the harmful effect of the blue light,” Bhatnagar said. “Further, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) specification IS:16108 includes photo-biological standards, which ensure that LED bulbs conforming to it will have no harmful effect on the human eye. EESL follows this BIS standard in all its procurement of LED bulbs.”

New standards

The Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) has issued a notification for its standards and labelling programme to include LED lamps under the list of mandatory appliances on December 27, 2017. The LED manufacturers now have six months to comply with the specifications to maintain quality.

This labelling is a key objective to provide the consumer an informed choice about the energy saving and thereby the cost saving potential of the relevant marketed product by display of energy performance labels on high energy end use equipment and appliances and lays down minimum energy performance standards.

The situation on the ground, however, remains wanting. An October 2017 study by market researcher AC Neilsen had drawn attention to an alarming situation. “As much as 76% of LED bulb brands and 71% of LED downlighter brands across 200 electrical retail outlets in the four major cities were found to be non-compliant with consumer safety standards as prescribed and mandated for lighting products by the Bureau of Indian Standards and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology,” according to a media report.

Worried about zero enforcement when it comes to quality checks, the Electric Lamp and Component Manufacturers’ Association of India (ELCOMA), a consortium of India’s lighting industry that counts Philips India, Mysore Lamps And Sylvania and Laxman among its members, has been asking the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MOEIT) to issue a compulsory registration order (CRO) for safety measures for LED manufacturers.

“We are interested in enforcement action, but we have no authority. From the government, there is zero enforcement. We have proposed to the government that we will have agency to find fakes and take actions,” said a member of ELCOMA. “But even after meeting authorities at various levels, the government has not responded.”

In the meanwhile, the Indian LED market has been flooded with cheap Chinese products that are completely unregulated.

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