Rua da Rosa

LED Streetlights: An Improvement or a Health Hazard?

St. Cloud, Minnesota, is investing seven million dollars to improve their streetlights. The city is installing those bright, snazzy, new LED lights. Public Services Director Pat Shea says that most of the feedback is positive:

The LED lights are more durable, have a longer life and use 40 percent to 60 percent less electricity than their sodium counterparts. They also produce a brighter, whiter light instead of the traditional orange glow, which improves safety.

Every once in a while, someone is either unhappy with the brightness of the light or it doesn’t spread quite as much as it used to be.

The American Medical Association is one of those voices of dissent. The AMA recently warned that some of those bright blueish streetlights can create significant environmental and health hazards:

Although data are still emerging, some evidence supports a long-term increase in the risk for cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity from chronic sleep disruption or shiftwork and associated with exposure to brighter light sources in the evening or night.

Even stronger criticism comes from the International Dark Sky Association. This advocacy group has been warning loudly about the risks of bluish LED outdoor lighting for more than five years. Their concern is not just for human health, but the health of the planet and protection of beautiful night skies.

This problem is not a dead end for the burgeoning LED lighting industry. Newer, safer versions of this high-tech lighting are available. Careful design is the critical element. Those unnaturally bright blue lights from the first generation of LED lighting present the most risk. Warmer, more natural lights now also incorporate designs that minimize glare and light pollution.

Some cities are taking heed. Others are dismissing the issue. Some are just dealing with complaints as they come. New York City jumped in early and now is replacing the questionable, high-intensity lights only when people complain.

Lake Worth, Florida, is replacing sodium street lights with LED lights that have a warm amber glow. City Manager Michael Bornstein says that his city chose carefully:

We found a color that made sense for the health of our city, and we’re proud of the choice we’ve made.

Innovation is great. Innovation brings an obligation to guard against unintended harms.

Click here to read more from the Washington Post and here to read the position statement from the AMA.

Rua da Rosa, photograph © Gustave Deghilage / flickr

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October 6, 2016