Please Explain: Light Pollution

Friday, August 08, 2008

Most Americans can’t see the Milky Way in the night sky…and here in New York, we’re lucky if we can see any stars at all! Find out why light pollution is a growing problem, and how it may even endanger your health. Leonard talks to Pete Strasser of the International Dark-Sky Association; and Dr. Richard Stevens, cancer epidemiologist and professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

Does New York City light pollution bother you? What are your tips for dealing with too-bright lights from the streets or from neighbors' homes?


Dr. Richard Stevens and Pete Strasser

Comments [38]

Josh from manhattan

How do I get the school next door, whose lights shine directly into my apartment, to cover the light with a baffle or something to direct the light down into the alley?
the lights were obscured by construction scaffolding and scrim until tonight. the lights are so bright it's like a scene from a Woody Allen movie, alas I am not laughing or sleeping, or waking up naturally to the morning light (light that I have so little of during the day). I want to cry, but instead I am reaching out for help. The school is on West end ave between 94 & 95. thanks.

May. 14 2009 12:19 AM
Graham Cliff from Manchester, England.

The "hidden" harm, caused by light at night, was anticipated as long ago as 1897 to be potentially harmful! The LA Times carried a story, 14 September 1897, that an English journal was suggesting that electricity would extirpate song birds. Whilst it has taken over 112 years, it really is happening. Bugs are being sucked from habitat by artificial night lighting and insectivores are starving as a consequence, never mind the insecticides. Nocturnal creatures have already lost the night. The 24 hour day really is killing off Life On Earth?

May. 09 2009 09:05 AM

While, as a scientifically minded person, I'm generally sympathetic to the outdoor effects of light, especially considering the relative ease of changes like effective angles on street lights- I must say I was a little dismayed at the general tone of "light is bad".

I know the guests didn't exactly say that, but it was heavily implied. Let's not lose perspective. Fingertip control of light has allowed us professions that don't require 16 hours in the fields. We can educate ourselves indoors after the sun has gone down.

As for the possible carcinogenic effects, give me some numbers and scale. Lifespan just hit 78 years. I think we're doing ok. My understanding is that cancer rates are essentially level, if not declining. It is detecting that is increasing (this is good), and with an aging population, it is inevitable that we will increase per capita rates of cancer. This is a statistical issue, not a sign if increased threat of cancer.

I would like to hear the guests rate how serious they believe these problems to be, in other words, what world problems come directly before and after light effects on humans.

I'll take all the glorious benefits of living till 78 or more, reading wonderful literature and even watching that evil TV at midnight; even in trade for a micro-miniscule increase in my risk of cancer, or a little morning groginess.

Aug. 09 2008 02:47 AM
myrna from new york

Doesn't this fly in the face of common advice regarding insomnia ? "Experts" say if you can't sleep, get up, turn on the lights and read a book until you feel sleepy again. I have always disregarded this advice, and even if I have to lay awake in the dark for hours, I refuse to "let in the light".. Maybe my instinct about this is correct.

Aug. 08 2008 03:05 PM

How much is a sleeping mask an effective tool to counteract the health effects of too much light?

Aug. 08 2008 02:06 PM

While your Tucson guest implies "dark skies" controls started in Tucson in the 1970's, he's a little remiss in not giving due to his observatory neighbors to the north--Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. They worked with the city on a "dark skies" ordinance in 1958 (caused by a car dealer's 'search light' promotion). (My great uncle Earl Slipher was the Lowell director at that time and this story was recently reported in the Lowell Observer newsletter.)

Aug. 08 2008 02:04 PM
Janet Becker from Manhattan

Question: How might the light-dark melatonin relationship relate to Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Aug. 08 2008 02:00 PM
Yosef from Brooklyn NY

I am very much into studying Jewish Law in regards to determining the time of night for halachik (Jewish law)

There is a vast amount of Rabbinic lit. written on this subject as night fall is established by the appearance of 3 small stars viewable to the naked human eye and I find, in many sources that Rabbis wrote post the advent of street lighting cite a later time for the same cities or geographic areas.

How much of the New York City area's obstruction of the night time star will you attribute to modern lighting as opposed to climate and pollution? (as compared to a place like Tucson)

Aug. 08 2008 01:56 PM
Emily from New York, NY

I was struck by a caller's story about her horse whose body was tricked into frequently being in heat by artificial light at night. It made me wonder about a possible connection with breast cancer. Given the association of breast cancer with increased estrogen levels, I was wondering if there is an increased rate of irregularities in the cycles of women with breast cancer, possibly caused by disruptions in their circadian rhythms by artificial light.

Aug. 08 2008 01:56 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I knew I had another question, the flip side of the melatonin question: is caffeine not a good way to help stay awake, either in the day or at night?

Aug. 08 2008 01:54 PM

I worked "swing shift" for 14 years (4-week rotation: 1 week days, 1 week nights, then 1 week graveyard with enough days off between each 7-day shift to make a 4-week schedule). Is that any better or worse than straight graveyard or night shifts?

Aug. 08 2008 01:54 PM
RC from queens

Have the guests studied Scandanvian countries which have long days in the summer and can be very dark all day long in the winter?

Aug. 08 2008 01:53 PM

1. how does reflectivity of things being lit affect light pollution? any difference between dark slate or asphalt vs light concrete for sidewalks, etc ?

2. how do differences in color temperature and/or intensity of street lighting affect plants and trees? any special recommendations for lamp posts in parks or for tree lined streets?

Aug. 08 2008 01:52 PM
Tom from NYC

Should your child use a night light?

Aug. 08 2008 01:51 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Does the requirement for sleep time (or time in the dark) change as the length of the day changes over the year?

Aug. 08 2008 01:51 PM
ethel Romm from NYC

Without seeing the zillion stars glittering in the Milky Way, we suffer from hubris, thinking we are alone in the universe.

Aug. 08 2008 01:48 PM
shc from Manhattan

Speaking of rhythms, when I was in grad school I had to pull several all-nighters. I didn't feel right if I stayed up all night to see the sun rise, so I would try and make a point of going to bed, even if it was only for a quick catnap, before daybreak. This way when I awoke I'd feel somewhat more normal and tired, as opposed to unnatural and tired.

Aug. 08 2008 01:46 PM
jz from NYC

I live in Brooklyn (Prospect Heights) and it is lighter at night than Alphabet City (which I left 2 years ago). I understand that people think that lights deter crime, but I actually read an article not too long ago that the opposite may be true. The article suggested that vandals may be drawn to lit doorways and that lights actually disable our eyes' ability to see contrast and could make it easier for someone to hide in the shadows just outside the throw of a "safety" light.

Aug. 08 2008 01:44 PM
Barry from Soho

Can you ask them if this affects plant life? Does too much light adversely affect them?

Aug. 08 2008 01:44 PM
Denise Higginson from vancouver, bc, canada

my friend is blind and has constantly changing sleep cycles. I wonder if this is a "carcinogen" for him?

Aug. 08 2008 01:43 PM
Stephanie Longo from Monument CO

Are LED streetlights a good idea?

Aug. 08 2008 01:43 PM
Edward from Jersey City

Marshall McLuhan often talked about how light bulbs changed the course of humanity.

Aug. 08 2008 01:43 PM
susan harder from NYC

We are setting up an observatory in Montauk, a train ride from NYC, where we have a 20" professional grade telescope.

Aug. 08 2008 01:41 PM
susan harder from NYC


New York City Councilman Alan Gerson is working on outdoor lighting legislation that would reduce light pollution, glare and light trespass.

Susan Harder
NY State IDA

Aug. 08 2008 01:40 PM
anonyme from midtown manhattan

but we have many perversions going on like industrial food

Aug. 08 2008 01:38 PM
anonyme from midtown manhattan

they have special low lights on the roads at their nesting places in Florida

Aug. 08 2008 01:37 PM
Julian from manhattan

The increase in light pollution has undoubtedly had a pernicious effect on nocturnal insects and perhaps those organisms which prey upon them (another listener mentioned birds). I can attest to this by witnessing a decrease in the diversity and number of insects, particularly moths, coming to light traps over the past decades.

Aug. 08 2008 01:36 PM
Carrie from Brooklyn

Is it safe to take melatonin every night? I have a lot of sleep problems, but am not sure if melatonin is OK every night. I am of course especially worried about this possible cancer connection.

Aug. 08 2008 01:36 PM
anonyme from midtown manhattan

my father was an ob-gyn before teh days of group practices - he never counted on a night's sleep - he was really a nutty man

Aug. 08 2008 01:36 PM
anonyme from midtown manhattan

I know a norwegian (in his office) and some swedes who close their curtains on bright sunny days

Aug. 08 2008 01:34 PM
Paul from Montclair, NJ

West Orange, NJ, at Eagle Rock Preserve, used to have one of the most spectacular and unique night time views of the sky as well as the NYC skyline. Post 911, when the Memorial was put in, installation of lights DESTROYED the view. It was so sad. Clearly, no thought was given to light pollution and simple natural aesthetics. Zoning and planning boards should have rules about lighting.

Aug. 08 2008 01:32 PM
anonyme from midtown manhattan

Light is a crime buster -

might skies in winter in Nantucket used to be really wonderful

my bro went out on his scooter during the big San Francisco earthquake aftermath and was awed because he saw the milky way

Did you know that Australian aboriginals drew stars that westerners weren't able to see for centuries, because they couldn't, without a telescope

Light at night messes with hormones - and makes menopause worse! It causes sleep deprivation

And think of the birds!

Aug. 08 2008 01:31 PM
cb from Park Slope

I've been told that the city doesn't regulate the strength of roof lights. Can this be?

One of the new high-end (6 or 7 story) buildings in Park Slope has an enormously bright light on the roof.

What a waste of energy, and annoying too, as it shines into my apartment a block away.

Is there any reason for this? Building code? Air traffic?

Aug. 08 2008 01:30 PM

Murrow has a planetarium? Awesome! (That's my alma mater).

Lately, it's been my fantasy to see a starry sky. The last one I saw was simulated, it was at the Hayden Planetarium.

Anyway, I never though so much about light polution until I started paying more attention to science and watching the Science Channel. Season 2 of "The Universe" series has a great episode (Ep. 8, I think) on the "Milky Way."

Aug. 08 2008 12:55 PM

I hate to say it, but you can probably see the sky a lot better from a great many places on the west coast than in rural Ohio.
I'd like to suggest we avoid the perception of the west coast as having far worse air pollution than Ohio. On the ranking of added cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants, New York (state) scores 1100/1 mil, California 890/1 mil, and Ohio 730/1 mil. The other west coast states, Oregon and Washington, are further down that list.
Los Angeles has terrible air quality issues, and so do our commercial agricultural centers, which provide produce year-round for the rest of the country, despite the perception that California is one giant Baywatch set. But air quality outside of those areas is very high. And we have some of the strictest regulations against air pollution in the nation. I believe New York and other states have made great efforts to adopt the same standards. Note however that: "an outpouring of dust layered with man-made sulfates, smog, industrial fumes, carbon grit, and nitrates is crossing the Pacific Ocean on prevailing winds from booming Asian economies in plumes so vast they alter the climate. Almost a third of the air over Los Angeles and San Francisco can be traced directly to Asia. With it comes up to three-quarters of the black carbon particulate pollution that reaches the West Coast." Against that, we can't regulate.

Aug. 08 2008 12:16 PM
shc from Manhattan

I just got back from a trip in South America where I hiked the Andes for three days. The number of stars in the sky was absolutely mind-boggling, and possibly one of the most beautiful things a person growing up in the Northeast could ever see. We could see the Milky Way, shooting stars, Venus, and even satellites crossing the sky.

Unfortunately I think that light pollution is a reality in major urban centers, and can only suggest that people leave these cities every once in a while to get in touch with nature and how small we really are.

Aug. 08 2008 12:09 PM
mc from Brooklyn

Edward R Murrow High School has a planetarium. The science teacher who runs it advocates hoods on street lamps. They would focus the light down to the street where it is needed and prevent it from shining up toward the sky.

I just spent 4 weeks in rural Ohio where we see the Milky Way all the time. Some of the West Coast kids there thought it was air polution. Sad.

Aug. 08 2008 11:16 AM
Peter from Allamuchy

The city of Tucson, AZ has an ordinance against light pollution to protect the nearby observatories of Kitt Peak and Mt. Graham. I live in rural NW NJ and we have staedily been experiencing the creep in of LP which is affecting our amateur observatory on Jenny Jump Mt.

Aug. 08 2008 10:11 AM

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