Earth Matters: LED lighting: energy savings, but at a cost

Remember the slogan “Change a light, change the world”?

It was the start of the national effort, beginning in earnest around the turn of this century, which supported new government standards for energy-efficient lighting, and phased out light bulbs that failed to meet those new standards.

Initially, compact fluorescent light bulbs, which used about 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs, was the go-to choice for myself and other conscientious consumers.

However, many of us were soon disenchanted with the harsh quality of the light, the delayed start due to warm up time and of course, the small, but significant amount of mercury contained in the bulbs.

The prospect of a hazardous waste cleanup if a bulb broke was intimidating. And so, the fate of the compact fluorescent was sealed. Early in 2016, the industry leader, General Electric, announced it would stop making and selling the bulbs by the end of that year.

While the compact fluorescent bulb saw its rise and fall in the consumer market, the manufacturers of another alternative, the light emitting diode, were busy refining their technology, and by around 2010 had many viable options ready for the market.

It was popular for its long life, its familiar shape (just like an incandescent bulb) and came in various sizes and colors. Its initial high cost was also dropping, making it the new “best” lighting choice for consumers as well as industrial, institutional and street lighting applications. LEDs were also used in flashlights, TVs and the screens on digital devices, including cell phones, tablets and computers.

LED lighting quickly became omnipresent in our lives. Data shows that in 2012, more than 49 million LEDs were installed in the U.S., resulting in savings of approximately $675 million in energy costs.

With anything this good, there has to be a downside, right? Well, without getting too technical, here is the information you should know (and share) about the potential health risks of LED lighting:

LED lights utilize more blue light, which is part of the typical visible spectrum.

Studies show that blue light encompasses shorter wavelengths and is a higher energy emitter, similar to ultraviolet light, except that ultraviolet light is invisible and blue light appears white to the naked eye. We all know that UV light can do damage to our skin and eyes, but many of us are unaware that the exposure to blue light can also cause serious health problems.

Cumulative exposure to LED bulbs and the myriad of devices with screens we gaze at every day can cause both short and long-term effects on eye health.

Short-term effects include eye strain, headaches, and dry and burning eyes.

More serious long-term effects include retinal cell damage, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, which are typically related to aging, but are now being diagnosed in younger people. This trend is getting the attention of doctors worldwide.

In response, eyeglass lens companies have been developing specially tinted glasses that block much of the blue light.

These can be worn while working on computers or even driving at night, when the glare from oncoming LED car headlights makes it difficult to see clearly.

You can also download a free app called f.lux which will automatically adjust the color of your digital device screen according to location and time of day. And you can now purchase longer life incandescent bulbs for lighting fixtures.

While you have many options to reduce your personal exposure to LED light, you have few options if your local town or village decides to “upgrade” the street lighting in your neighborhood.

Many towns are taking advantage of state grants or other funding to reduce energy costs by removing the old sodium street lamps and replacing them with LEDs. The typical new energy-efficient lighting utilizes very high color temperature LED bulbs (4000K to 6000K), which can make neighborhoods look and feel like they are bathed in daylight 24/7.

This has huge consequences for our health, as it interrupts our circadian rhythm or sleep/wake cycles.

This natural cycle of light and dark is important for the production of melatonin, but it is suppressed by light at night, especially bright LED lighting.

Melatonin is an important regulator of hormones as well as various other protective and vital functions in our bodies. Dr. Joshua Rosenthal, a Huntington-based physician specializing in sleep disorders says, “Without melatonin your sleep quality suffers. It is also an anti-cancer hormone and studies have already demonstrated that it can suppress tumor growth. The lack of melatonin’s estrogen suppression may be one of the possible causes to its link to breast cancer.”
A study published in 2017 on outdoor light at night and breast cancer was conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and four other medical schools. Its findings suggest that exposure to residential outdoor light at night may contribute to invasive breast cancer risk. And the American Medical Association has also weighed in, recommending intensity thresholds that minimize blue-rich lighting to protect public health.
There is much more to say about the human health impacts of exposure to LED “blue light.” John Ott has written extensively about this issue and has two books that may be of interest, and in the current copy of National Geographic the issue of LEDs seems to be important enough to have captured the cover story!

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The Island Now

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