Missing the Dark: Health Effects of Light Pollution

By Chepesiuk, Ron | Environmental Health Perspectives, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Missing the Dark: Health Effects of Light Pollution


Chepesiuk, Ron, Environmental Health Perspectives


In 1879, Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulbs first illuminated a New York street, and the modern era of electric lighting began. Since then, the world has become awash in electric light. Powerful lamps light up streets, yards, parking lots, and billboards. Spots facilities blaze with light that is visible for tens of miles. Business and office building windows glow throughout the night. According to the Tuscon, Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the sky glow of Los Angeles is visible from an airplane 200 miles away. In most of the world's large urban centers, stargazing is something that happens at a planetarium. Indeed, when a 1994 earthquake knocked out the power in Los Angeles, many anxious residents called local emergency centers to report seeing a strange "giant, silvery cloud" in the dark sky. what they were really seeing--for the first time--was the Milky Way, long obliterated by the urban sky glow.

None of this is to say that electric lights are inherently bad. Artificial light has benefited society by, for instance, extending the length of the productive day, offering more time not just for working but also for recreational activities that require light. But when artificial outdoor lighting becomes inefficient, annoying, and unnecessary, it is known as light pollution. Many environmentalists, naturalists, and medical researchers consider light pollution to be one of the fastest growing and most pervasive forms of environmental pollution. And a growing body of scientific research suggests that light pollution can have lasting adverse effects on both human and wildlife health.

When does nuisance light become a health hazard? Richard Stevens, a professor and cancer epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, Connecticut, says light photons must hit the retina for biologic effects to occur. "However, in an environment where there is much artificial light at night--such as Manhattan or Las Vegas--there is much more opportunity for exposure of the retina to photons that might disrupt circadian rhythm," he says. "So I think it is not only 'night owls' owls get those photons. Almost all of us awaken during the night for periods of time, and unless we have blackout shades there is some electric lighting coming in out windows. It is not clear how much is too much; that is an important part of the research now."

According to "The First World Atlas of the Artificial Night Sky Brightness," a report on global light pollution published in volume 328, issue 3 (2001) of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, two thirds of the U.S. population and more than one-half of the European population have already lost the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye. Moreover, 63% of the world population and 99% of the population of the European Union and the United Stated (excluding Alaska and hawaii) live in areas where the nights sky is brighter than the threshold for light-polluted status set by the International Astronomical Union--that is, the artificial sky brightness is greater than 10% of the natural sky brightness above 45 [degree] of elevation.

Light pollution comes in many forms, including sky glow, light trespass, glare, and overillumination. Sky glow is the bright halo that appears over urban areas at night, a product of light being scattered by water droplets or particles in the air. Light trespass occurs when unwanted artificial light from, for instance, a floodlights or streetlight spills onto an adjacent property, lighting an area that would otherwise be dark. Glare is created by light that shines horizontally. Overillumination refers to the use of artificial light well beyond what is required for a specific activity, such as keeping the lights on all night in an empty office building.

Distracted by the Light

The ecologic effects of artificial light have been well documented. Light pollution has been shown to affect both flora and fauna.

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