August 21, 2016 by Jean
This morning, I heard a fascinating interview on the Public Radio program Living on Earth with Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night (Little, Brown 2013). The interview focused on the issue (which I was already aware of) of light pollution and the health problems (which I was not aware of) created by the lack of darkness in our lives.
I am a lover of natural light – and natural darkness. One of the things that delights me about living in rural Maine, just below the 45th parallel, is the way the quality of light and darkness change through the seasons. In summer, I revel in those long hours of light; and in winter, I love the rich star-filled nights. Because I live in a rural area, there is relatively little light pollution and I can really see the stars; and because I live at the end of a dirt road, I feel free to have curtain-free windows that let in sunlight, moonlight, and starlight.
I have been concerned about light pollution for some time, mostly on a personal level. I hate those dusk-to-dawn lights, and I decided not to install solar-powered lights along my steps and garden paths when I learned that they would stay on all night. It annoys me (a lot!) when a neighbor leaves on an outside light all night. What struck me most about this interview, however, was the focus on the negative health effects of too much light. I was aware that too little light could cause health problems (as in Seasonal Affective Disorder, which a number of my friends suffer from), but I had not heard much discussion of the negative consequences of too much light, particularly the impact on the production of melatonin and on sleep patterns. It turns out that we need dark – real dark, the kind that’s not available anymore in many places – to sleep well. And not getting good quality sleep has a cascade of other negative health effects. And it turns out that blue light, the kind that is transmitted by LED lights and by all our glowing screens, is the most disruptive.
The paradox in all of this is that many older people suffer from insomnia. But just at the time of life when we find it more difficult to get good quality sleep, we are advised (for our own safety) to fill our nights with light. We are told to keep night lights on and to turn on a light if we have to get up during the night to go to the bathroom. This is the exact opposite of the advice on how to avoid the negative health effects of too much light!
This has me re-evaluating my own practices. When I built the new addition on my house, I mostly added LED light fixtures (for environmental conservation reasons). And, since I moved into my new master suite, I have been keeping a night light on in the bathroom. I don’t feel unsafe without the night light, but I feel that I should be cautious about potential injuries because I live alone. I don’t generally have trouble sleeping – although, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been finding it more difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position and I get up more during the night. I’m going to try turning off all the screens and LED lights at least 30 minutes before I go to bed, and I’m going to try doing without the night light (also LED!). If I can improve my long-term health by improving the quality of darkness in my home, I want to take advantage of that possibility.