Close to Home: Growing concerns about LED streetlights

A number of cities throughout Sonoma County, along with PG&E, are in the process of replacing streetlights with LED lights to save energy and money and reduce our carbon footprint.

Sounds like a great idea. Or does it? Maybe not.

According to the New York Times, when this was done in Brooklyn, people resorted to taping black garbage bags over their windows to block out the offending light.

Currently Houston is struggling with the realization that the LED streetlights the city signed up for in 2014 are a big mistake. Residents don't like them, and the city is researching other alternatives.

In Davis, after the city replaced its streetlights with standard blue-white LEDs, the public rebeled. The city had to spend an additional $350,000 to take them out and substitute warmer-colored LEDs that townspeople could tolerate.

The city has installed blue-white LEDs in much of Santa Rosa. A recent letter to the editor expressed one woman's distress at the invasive 'Vegas-like brightness' of the new LEDs, which prevent her from even seeing the stars.

The harsh glare caused by LED streetlights is really a quality-of-life issue. Do we need bright piercing lights invading our homes at night? How will it affect our ability to enjoy the peace and beauty of our night skies?

Most people, when faced with the glare of LEDs, avert their eyes. Even from a distance, the glare from extremely intense LEDs (think of the oncoming headlights of newer cars) is unpleasant. There is a connection between our natural aversion to overly bright penetrating light and eye health. The avoidance of glare is really the eye's natural response to protect itself from harm.

In addition to the visual discomfort LEDs can cause, there are serious health concerns. People often refer to this light as 'blinding.' This may unfortunately be an accurate description, as scientific evidence points to LED exposure as a cause of irreversible retinal damage and even a factor in development of macular degeneration.

Our circadian rhythms and ability to sleep at night are regulated by melatonin, the master hormone of the body. Secreted by the pineal gland, it's production is stopped by light at night, especially blue light. Most LED streetlights emit a lot of blue light, reducing sleep quality and quantity. PG&E's standard streetlights (where they haven't already been replaced by LED) are HPS­ — high pressure sodium. Research has shown that LEDs suppress melatonin at five times the HPS rate. Low melatonin levels are also known to impair the immune system, and a correlation has been demonstrated between low levels of the hormone and cancer, as well as depression and a host of other maladies.

For millions of years, humans, animals and most living things have evolved with alternating daily periods of darkness and light. We need nighttime darkness to maintain health and well-being. Too much light at night disrupts our biological clocks. At least humans can put up black garbage bags on their windows — but what about the rest of the natural world? If we deprive other creatures of darkness, we dramatically disturb their lives, too.

So slow down, Sonoma County, and take a closer look before you leap. Let's not make the same mistake Davis, Houston and Brooklyn have made. Maybe there is a biologically compatible LED streetlight that will meet our needs. But I don't think that is what PG&E is offering.

Nancy Hubert is a Sebastopol resident who has studied human health for many years.

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