Blinded by the Light

What would happen in a city if all of the lights went out? There would be confusion, mass hysteria, violence and anarchy. What would happen if all the stars in the sky disappeared? What if when you looked up at the sky those gleaming spots that burn throughout the night were no longer there? Would people panic? Would there be hysteria? Would some people even notice?

This hypothetical situation is becoming a reality. Stars are not falling out of the sky. The Earth’s atmosphere is beginning to be filled by artificial light that makes it almost impossible to see the stars in the sky. This artificial light is known as “sky glow.” Sky glow is one of the many effects of light pollution (Richardson, 2013).

The effects of light pollution was the main topic in National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson’s lecture “Light Pollution: Our Vanishing Night” at Syracuse University. Richardson traveled around the world for over six months taking photographs and researching the various effects of light pollution on the natural environment for the article “Our Vanishing Night” (Richardson, 2013).

Richardson defined light pollution as artificial light that intrudes into the night sky. This pollution can be caused by poor lighting design that emits excessive light into the atmosphere. While Richardson did talk about how light pollution effects the environment and animals, one of the more alarming topics of the discussion was light pollution’s effect on humans’ health (Richardson, 2013).

When most people hear about health -related illnesses due to excessive exposure to light they think about skin cancer or eye degeneration. The sun can cause both of these illnesses, but artificial light can also cause health-related issues.

One of the most common health -related illnesses linked to artificial lights is a cataract. After being exposed to high levels of artificial lights for a prolonged period of time calcifications can build up in the lens of the eye. When a person’s eye is forced to continually adjust to the contrast of artificial lights at night, the eye tissue can be damaged causing large accumulations of calcium to develop. Eventually these calcifications can develop into cataracts, which can cause blurred and double vision (Motta, 2012, para 3). According to Dr. Vance Thompson from, “about half of the population has a cataract by age 65, and nearly everyone over 75 has at least one (Thompson, 2010, para. 1-3).”

In 2008 the American Medical Association passed a resolution that advised the Ffederal Highway Administration to install glare shields on all streetlights to prevent eye damage. The Highway Administration took the suggestion under advisement, but has not yet installed any shields on existing streetlights (Chepesiuk, 2009, para. 5). In the city of Los Angeles, California a city-wide ordinance was passed in 2011 that allows residents to request glare shields be installed on specific city streetlights (“Requesting Street,” 2013, para 3-4).

Another health -related illness linked to overexpose to artificial lights is circadian-rhythm disruption. Circadian-rhythm disruption occurs when external forces such as sleep deprivation or time zone change disrupts an individual’s internal body clock. The circadian rhythm regulates sleeping patterns, hormone production and cell regeneration (“Sleep and”, 2013, para 1-4).

Paolo Sassone-Corsi, chairman of the Pharmacology Department at the University of California, Irvine, said, “medical disorders including depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, and cancer have been linked to circadian-rhythm disruption. Studies show that the circadian cycle controls from ten to fifteen percent of our genes” Chepesiuk, 2009,para 14).

While many medical disorders have been linked to circadian-rhythm disruption more and more doctors are linking specific types of cancer to the medical condition. When humans are exposed to light at night and their circadian rhythm is disrupted serum levels of melatonin decreases. A June 2008 study conducted by Harvard Medical School epidemiologist Eva Schernhammer reported that a woman’s risk of bowel or colon (colorectal) cancer is 73 percent higher when she has low serum levels of melatonin in her body. Melatonin is the hormone that controls sleep patterns and energy levels in the body (Hotz, 2008, para 9-12).

Historically this type of cancer has been linked to men and women who work night shifts jobs. Night shift workers such as some nurses and doctors are frequently exposed to artificial light during the night (Campbell, 2008, para. 3). Recently more and more people who work during the day are being diagnosed with these types of cancer. Schernhammer suggests that this increase could be related to the prevalence of artificial light and the rise of light pollution. Now people who don’t work the night shift are being overexposed to artificial light during the nighttime (Hotz, 2008, para 12-15).

“The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently declared circadian-rhythm disruption as a class 2A carcinogen — placing it on the same level of severity as the effects of tobacco smoke on lung cancer. Even two weeks of intermittent nightly light exposure can seriously curtail melatonin production” (Motta, 2012, para. 4). Besides colorectal cancer, low melatonin levels have been linked to various types of lung and breast cancer (Hotz, 2008, para 6).

Light pollution is a problem that harms the environment, animals and even the health of humans. These studies do not completely prove that certain types of illness are a direct result of over exposure to artificial lights, but it can be said that these illness are strongly linked to overexposure to artificial light. Light pollution is a growing problem (Richardson, 2013).

For many people the idea of light pollution seems ridiculous. “So what we can’t see the stars at night. Are we supposed to live without electricity and go back to the Dark Ages ?” The answer is an obvious no, but steps need to be taken to control this type of pollution.

Intelligent lighting systems can be used. These systems turn on lights depending on the time of day and the level of natural light available. Full cutoff and LED lights can be used. These lights emit light directly on the ground and do not project any light into the atmosphere. Policies can be passed that limit the amount of light emitted into the atmosphere. Countries like Italy have banned certain light structures that cause light pollution all together. Programs like “Switch Off” or “Earth Hour” can be promoted. These programs encourage both private citizens along with businesses to simply turn off lights, when they are not in use (Richardson, 2013).

Limiting light pollution helps the environment, saves resources, safeguards animal and protects humanity. Like other types of pollution, light pollution must be addressed. Richardson said it best. “ We need to start taking care of the world we were given” (Richardson, 2013). Something needs to be done about light pollution before it is too late.