Sunday, December 9, 2012

Good for public safety, bad for public health?

In the past few months, city workers passed through our neighborhood converting all the old florescent streetlight bulbs to new LED bulbs.

I became aware of this city program because one afternoon I curiously remarked about workers on our street and that night our bedroom was *lit up.* Honestly, seriously bright.  With the curtains closed.  As I moved through the house I realized every room that had direct view to a street light, be it just on the corner or literally the other side of the block, was now bright enough to read by.

This alarms me.  You know how I feel about sleep, already.  A big part of good sleep comes with keeping non-natural light exposure low. Even the tiniest amount of nighttime light impacts our hormonal systems, both sleep related and others.  While I can and will purchase black out curtains for the bedrooms to limit the amount of light seeping in, our city's cost reduction program will inadvertently mess with the hormonal systems of almost everyone in town.

And their dinner.  In 2010 I wrote this post about my concerns for the lettuce growing in a hydroponic farm I drive by. I know it seems silly, but there is plenty of research to show that every living thing needs rest (and dark) as much as it needs light to thrive and mature.  As I look out the window at midnight, each individual leaf of my basil is brightly illuminated.  This just can't be good for my garden.

I wonder, too, about general light pollution.  I know there are guidelines, maybe even requirements, about how much light a streetlight should shed into the surrounding area.  Searching around on the internet, I couldn't find any exact numbers for what constitutes light pollution, but I'm pretty sure illuminating the interior of my house qualifies for "light trespass."  I wonder what the NASA light maps would look like were every city to install these new LED bulbs.

The New Jersey Astronomical Association feels passionately about light pollution and links to some interesting articles about it. NASA is concerned enough about it for their astronauts to drop a hunk of change on biologically adjusted bulbs.  There turns out, even, to be a documentary about light pollution called "City Dark," reported on here by the Huffington Post. This problem of light pollution is not new, but I think it is probably also not on the radar of most public officials. Really, light pollution is neither sexy nor is likely to capture most people's hearts and imaginations.

Still, I have to feel for the City.  Here they've found a great new way to reduce costs and improve visibility for drivers and pedestrians.  They've eliminated the issue of dealing with the mercury from the florescent bulbs (though this may be more my boogey man than theirs).   City leaders are getting props for being cutting edge.

Jet lagged this week from our trip to Ecuador, the LEDs have particularlly been on my mind.  Waking up after hours of sleep, I can't judge based on the light streaming into my bedroom whether I've finally adjusted to the time change and slept in until 7:30 or if it is hours before sunrise.  2:30am LED looks exactly like 7:30am sunshine.

LEDs must be great for the budget and for public safety concerns. And I think they're equally bad for public health. I wonder how it will all work out.

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