Let there be night: The perils of light pollution

By: | Updated: January 28, 2018 6:40 PM

The activist, who runs Awaaz Foundation (an advocacy organisation working on environmental pollution) in Mumbai, has been relentlessly leading the fight against noise pollution for almost two decades and had now taken up the cudgels against light pollution.

light pollution, light trespass, over-illumination, glare, light clutter, environment hazard lightIn October 2017, environmental activist Sumaira Abdulali wrote a letter to the chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, complaining about the LED lights put up by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) at Juhu Beach.

It might be surprising, but we need the darkness as much as we need light. Not only humans, but plants, animals and the planet as well. Sadly, we are losing it fast, especially in India.

In October 2017, environmental activist Sumaira Abdulali wrote a letter to the chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, complaining about the LED lights put up by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) at Juhu Beach. On seeing it displayed at the beach, many Mumbaikars were left confused, for how could colourful and fancy lights on tall poles around the seashore lead to anything other than the beautification of the beach? But Abdulali knew better. The activist, who runs Awaaz Foundation (an advocacy organisation working on environmental pollution) in Mumbai, has been relentlessly leading the fight against noise pollution for almost two decades and had now taken up the cudgels against light pollution. Besides asking for the removal of the lights, she also asked the government to come up with a policy on light pollution.

“Light pollution is a very little-known and understood form of pollution, and is only recently being recognised as a severe environmental and health hazard,” says Abdulali. Her organisation, which conducted a study on light pollution a few months before she wrote the letter, measured the ambient light levels along Juhu Beach. As per the report, the lux level underneath the lights (that are at a height of 100 feet) through the landward side of the beach was 67,000 lux, while near the edge of the water it was 0.03 lux. The human eye should not be exposed directly to lux levels exceeding 50-60, as per experts. The lux is the SI derived unit of illuminance and luminous emittance, measuring luminous flux per unit area. It’s equal to one lumen per sq metre. In photometry, this is used as a measure of the intensity, as perceived by the human eye, of light that hits or passes through a surface. The report was submitted to the state environment department and the BMC on December 14 after which the intensity of lights at the beach was reduced, says Abdulali. And it’s not just Juhu Beach or India for that matter. As per a recent international study led by physicist Christopher Kyba from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geoscience in Germany, the artificially-lit surface of the planet at night increased in radiance and extent by 2.2% per year between 2012 and 2016. Around this time, artificially-lit areas at night across India increased by 33%—a rise of 7.4% per year. The study, published in the journal, Science Advances, in November 2017, provides key insights into how the night sky has invariably gotten brighter across the world. In 2016, the New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness was created by researchers from Italy, Germany, the US and Israel at the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Italy. The atlas showed that 99% of the population of the US and Europe lives in places where man-made lighting erases the view of the night sky. “Our nights have lost their natural darkness with the help of which all beings evolved over millions of years. The artificial lighting levels in our cities are hundreds of thousands of times higher than the natural lighting levels due to starlight. This means that we have completely upset the natural dark-light cycle,” says Fabio Falchi, the lead researcher of the project. “Around 80% of land area on earth suffers from light pollution, which can adversely affect sleep cycles and the ability to see in the dark,” says Falchi, who is also the president of CieloBuio, the Italian association for the protection of the night sky. There are five main categories of light pollution: light trespass, over-illumination, glare, light clutter and sky glow. ‘Light trespass’ occurs when unwanted light enters a house from the outside; ‘over-illumination’ is caused by high-pressure lighting pointing upwards; ‘glare’ is caused by oncoming car lights; ‘clutter’ is noticeable on roads, where streetlights are badly designed or where brightly-lit hoardings line the roads; and ‘sky glow’ refers to the diffused glow that can be seen over populated areas. “Around 94% of Indians live under light-polluted skies; as many as 20% people in the world can’t see the Milky Way; and 6% have night skies so polluted that rod cells, night-vision detectors, aren’t activated when looking at the night sky,” says Falchi.

Lost in light

Light pollution may not be talked about in the same breath as air, water or even noise pollution, but it’s killing the night sky and impacting human life. “Unlike air and water pollution, where adverse effects on health are immediately visible and could even be life-threatening, light pollution has subtle and long-term effects on health,” says Rathnasree Nandivada, director, Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi. “Awareness about it is almost non-existent in the Indian context… it’s only now that it’s emerging as a threat,” she says. With rising light pollution, the difference between night and day is also disappearing. As the artificially-lit area of the earth’s surface grew by 2.2% per year from 2012 to 2016, it led to a radiance growth of 1.8% per year. And the most immediate fallout has been the disappearance of stars. “The opportunity for us to view and ponder the sky in evening hours has been altered by the artificial brightening of the night sky,” says Chander B Devgun, president of Science Popularization Association of Communicators and Educators (SPACE), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation that promotes science through astronomy. “And the worst is, when we meet environment officials to apprise them of the problem, most of them are clueless about it,” he says. Devgun isn’t alone. Astronomers all across the country are lamenting the loss of the night sky. “Around 15 years back, you could drive to the outskirts of Delhi near Gurugram and spot bright stars. Today, we have to travel to the hills for stargazing,” rues Raghu Kalra, general secretary, Amateur Astronomers’ Association, an amateur astronomy group in New Delhi. On an average, around 3,000 stars can be viewed by the naked eye in the dark sky. “What was once a fortnightly activity for us has now been reduced to once in a few months,” says 26-year-old Kalra. And it’s not just about the missing stars. Light also affects the body’s inner clock. Disruption leads to sleep disorders, anxiety, depression and even cardiovascular diseases. There are studies, in fact, that point towards an increased risk of breast cancer and prostrate cancer because of exposure to artificial light. Garima Shukla, professor in the neurology department of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, had stressed upon the need for quality sleep in an earlier interview to FE. “A deep sleep is important for the metabolic control of the body. All our systems, be it digestive or cardiovascular, and our abilities, be it cognitive or behavioural, benefit from good sleep,” she said. Ophthalmologists also warn about the perils of excessive light. The amount of light the human eye can adjust to and find useful is between 400 and 500 microns. LED lights installed above hoardings, and in stadiums and open grounds are all more than 500 microns. “It can lead to hallucinations, false orientation and sleep disorders,” warns Arjun Ahuja, head of the ophthalmology department, KEM hospital, Parel, Mumbai. “In the past five years, there has been a tenfold rise in the number of patients coming to see me with eye ailments. The danger is going to escalate in the next five to 10 years. People don’t realise that they are suffering from dry eyes, irritability and watery eyes because of light pollution,” he says. A few months back, Philips Lighting India, which manufactures LED lights, conducted a survey among 1,000 adults across 10 cities in India and the results put forward the scant attention people pay to eye health. As per the study—which was conducted to check whether people pay any attention to eye care and corrective lighting measures—around 44% didn’t visit an eye specialist on a regular basis, while about three-quarters of the sample size considered weight (73%) and fitness (60%) as overall indicators of health. “The survey revealed that eye care is not equal to other perceived health metrics for Indian adults,” says Sumit Joshi, vice-chairman and managing director, Philips Lighting India. Interestingly, light pollution is no longer an annoyance to only human beings. “Flora and fauna, too, are negatively affected by this situation,” says Falchi, adding that light pollution is playing havoc with the habitat of nocturnal animals, especially bats. A study published in the journal, Frontiers in Environmental Science, in October 2017, highlighted that night-time electric lighting near water affects the number and type of insects and spiders living there. The study, led by researchers in Germany, found that streetlights near waterways can disrupt the surrounding ecosystem by attracting flying insects from the water and changing the predator community, leading to serious implications for the surrounding ecosystem and biodiversity. Research has also observed that some trees have trouble adapting to artificial light as seasons change. Newborn sea turtles, too, mistake streetlights for the light of the moon, which they rely on to guide them to the ocean. When these turtles follow streetlights, it leads them away from the sea, which could lead to their death. In another study, published in August 2017 in the journal, Nature, it was reported that light pollution also had an impact on pollination by nocturnal insects.

Who stole the night?

In November 2017, Mumbai residents, living next door to Wilson College Gymkhana on Marine Drive, made an official complaint to the police about light entering their houses. This was after two years of futile attempts to tone down the glare. In what could be the first-of-its-kind reprimand for light pollution, the police and district collector’s office issued notices to the gymkhana, asking them to switch off the lights after 10 pm. While the gymkhana agreed to switching off lights post 10 pm, there is no respite from high-mast lamps in urban pockets that serve little purpose. A high-mast lamp is necessary only at major intersections, where regular streetlights aren’t as effective in ensuring visibility. “Look at some of the high-mast sodium vapour lamps erected on highways. If you look closely, a lot of light is uselessly getting scattered,” says Devgun of SPACE.
High-mast lamps are meant for large areas like railway yards or industrial complexes, but many urban areas are now using these too, leading to disturbance for drivers due to the glaring light. The light also escapes into residential properties besides generating huge power bills for the civic body. “If a high-mast lamp is put up in a confined area, it interferes with houses and commercial spaces alike. As a thumb rule, a high-mast lamp is acceptable in an urban scenario only if direct light dispersion can be unhindered up to a horizontal distance of at least four times the height of the lamp. If any building comes in between, it’s better to avoid it,” explains Anilkumar Pandala, project director, Thiruvananthapuram Road Development Company. Pandala’s firm worked on urban development projects in Trivandrum, providing technologically-and socially-relevant lighting solutions without the use of high-mast lamps. The rampant use of LEDs is another problem. Globally, there has been a push towards more energy- and cost-efficient light sources such as LEDs, but researchers believe this has directly contributed to an alarming increase in light pollution. The LED’s blue light, which is naturally emitted only by the sun, is believed to mess with circadian rhythms, affecting sleep. It prevents the formation of melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep. “More blue light means more light pollution. And white LEDs have a lot of blue light,” says Falchi.

The light ahead

A lot of flak that LED light bulbs are receiving is because of their poor quality. Light manufacturers agree on the need for better lighting solutions and some are working at producing quality products. “When lighting levels are low, too high or inconsistent, it can impact eye comfort,” says Joshi of Philips Lighting India. “Our team of scientists have now developed LEDs that are easier on the eye because they don’t flicker.” Further, Philips Lighting India’s new LED bulbs can be controlled, dimmed and used with sensors to serve changing needs. The company has also introduced Philips ClearField LED lights, which help prevent an adverse impact on the bat habitat at night, helping preserve wildlife. To educate people about the problem, Nehru Planetarium, along with the Amateur Astronomers Association, started the ongoing Light Pollution Survey project in 2008, wherein people are asked to send in data about the number of stars visible at a particular location at a given time. Then there is Project Dark Skies. Initiated by SPACE in 2007, it’s a campaign dedicated to the better use of lighting and other illumination devices used in our day-to-day lives. “We recommend better positioning of light fixtures, so that the light falls only on areas that need to be illuminated… we also recommend that people use technologically-improved designs that use less power for the same level of brightness,” says Devgun of SPACE. The organisation has also joined hands with Globe at Night (an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness on the impact of light pollution) to conduct the Great Indian Star Count, which contributes to a worldwide star count. The global campaign invites people to go star-hunting and report their observations at specific times during the year. Currently, no law exists against light pollution and perpetrators can’t be booked, but activists are hopeful. “I expect that after some initial resistance to recognising the ill-effects of excessive light, this, too, will become recognised and appropriate policies will be enacted with citizens’ participation,” says activist Abdulali. Hoping there will be light, err, appropriate light at the end of the tunnel.

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