Montreal Gazette


Montreal is not the only metropolis replacing its outdoor lighting with efficient white LEDs. They come with the promise of big savings. But as nights get lighter, scientists say the dark, starry sky isn’t the only loss. People’s health is also at greater


Cities are getting brighter every year.

Since Thomas Edison flipped the switch in 1879, electrical light has saved lives in hospitals, extended hours of play in parks, given us picturesqu­e city skylines and allowed New York to become the city that never sleeps.

But while the importance of artificial light is remarkable, the value of darkness is much less obvious.

Light pollution now blocks out the stars at night in many cities, and a growing number of citydwelle­rs have never seen the Milky Way. Canada’s biggest observator­y, in Toronto, closed in 2008 because astronomer­s could no longer see a dark, starry sky.

Now scientists, environmen­talists and some municipal politician­s are sounding the alarm about light pollution for another reason: changes in human health and the ecosystem.

Light pollution has been linked to an increased risk of sleep disorders, cancers, diabetes, mental problems and obesity. It also has serious sometimes deadly consequenc­es for animals who are being confused by artificial light at night.

And it is the energy- efficient LED lights that are a particular cause for concern.

Montreal, l i ke many ci t i es around the world, is converting its outdoor lighting systems to white LED bulbs because of their low- energy consumptio­n and significan­t cost savings. LED bulbs use 50- to 70- per- cent less energy than traditiona­l bulbs, according to a 2012 report by The Climate Group, an internatio­nal non- profit organizati­on that promotes clean and renewable energy.

Montreal plans to swap out 110,000 lights across the city at a cost of $ 110 million. In return, it hopes to cut its electricit­y bill by half and reduce maintenanc­e costs by 55 per cent. Over 20 years, the goal is to save $ 278 million.

Gatineau has been migrating to white LED lights since 2007, and Ottawa is converting all of its outdoor sodium lights to white LED lights by 2020. Sodium lights are more expensive than LED lights, but they contain very little or none of the blue colour of white LED lights.

LED technology was developed in the 1960s, which makes it still relatively young. But it has evolved much more rapidly than any other lighting technology. Fluorescen­t technology has doubled in efficiency since 1950. LED technology has increased its efficiency, meaning its visible light produced, by 1,000 per cent in just 15 years.

But scientists agree there are a growing number of issues associated with LED lighting.

The technology initially produced a red light. As new materials became available, new light colours and wavelength­s were created to finally achieve a bluish- white light.

It is this blue light that scientists say is the problem.

In white LED bulbs, a phosphor coating on one part of the bulb, the emitter, absorbs some of the blue rays to produce warmer yellow light through fluorescen­ce. The combinatio­n of that yellow emission with remaining blue emission appears white to the eye.

“We aren’t against all LEDs,” says Martin Aubé, an astrophysi­cs professor and researcher at CÉGEP de Sherbrooke. “Only against the white ones, because they contain that bluish colour.” White LEDs come in a range of whites — warm, cool, bright — but all of them contain the blue that increases light pollution and has been linked to health issues.

“Using white LED lights increases light pollution by three times, which means 300 per cent more light pollution,” says Aubé. “If it continues in this direction, it is crystal clear that not only we won’t see the starry sky, but our health and ecosystem will pay the price.”

So, if anyone thinks Montreal is going reduce its light pollution by adopting white LEDs, they’re wrong, says Sébastien Giguère, scientific coordinato­r at the MontMégant­ic Internatio­nal Dark- Sky Reserve. The white LED 4000k lights that will be used to light up Montreal’s streets will increase light pollution by at least 250- percent more than the bulbs they are replacing, he says.

Never mind that “the proportion of young people who have seen the Milky Way is in a constant decrease,” as he says.

Light pollution in Montreal is at a very important turning point because of those lights, says James D. Lowenthal, professor at the astronomy department of Smith College in Northampto­n, Mass., who is working at McGill Space Institute until July.

"It is so important to get it right.,” Lowenthal warns.

The average person is now exposed to artificial light from 17 to 20 hours a day, seven hours more than the average exposure to natural daylight, says Johanne Roby, professor of chemistry at CÉGEP de Sherbrooke and an organizing member of Artificial Light at Night, a series of worldwide conference­s dedicated to examining artificial light at night.

"Our body is not able to distinguis­h daytime from nighttime anymore and … can’t rest. It’s just getting worse and worse, and it’s starting to be scary,” she says.

All around us, we’re being exposed to more artificial light than ever, and the increasing efficiency of that light is creating harmful consequenc­es.

The U. S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine and the American Medical Associatio­n have published research that says this exposure heightens the risk of sleep disorders, diabetes, obesity, even cancer.

Light pollution is growing at an average rate of six per cent a year in North America.

And it is changing our environmen­t into one for which we have not evolved, says Robert Dick, chair of the Royal Astronomic­al Society of Canada’s Light- Pollution Abatement Committee.

In 1987, the University of Connecticu­t cancer epidemiolo­gy professor Richard Stevens suggested that breast cancer could be linked with nighttime light exposure. He blamed exposure to artificial light for the suppressio­n of melatonin production, a hormone that helps protect against tumour growth.

Melatonin also has antioxidan­t properties, induces sleep, boosts the immune system, lowers cholestero­l, and helps the functionin­g of the thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, testes and adrenal glands.

“Melatonin is the key hormone to reset our body,” says Roby, the chemistry professor in Sherbrooke.

In 2012, the American Medical Associatio­n pointed to Stevens’s report when it recommende­d the developmen­t of new lighting technologi­es.

While blue shortwave illuminati­on has been linked to the suppressio­n of melatonin, no policies have been implemente­d in Montreal to restrict the use of white LED lights. Other cities in Canada have adopted policies for outdoor lighting. Sherbrooke will only allow white LED lights in certain areas of the city, like gas stations and sport fields.

The Bureau de normalisat­ion du Québec, which sets environmen­tal and industrial standards across the province, is developing standards for outdoor lighting. Public consultati­ons on proposed standards wrapped up at the end of July, and guidelines will be developed over the coming year.

Aubé, t he astrophysi­cs r esearcher in Sherbrooke, says the proposed standards will have some positive impact on light pollution, but he says they don’t go far enough. “They are proposing a … zoning system,” he says. “The policy is very strict around the Mont- Mégantic Dark Sky Reserve, for example, but is looser in cities such as Montreal.”

“My colleagues and I strongly believe that if artificial lighting is bad in one place, it’s also bad in the other one.”

While the proposed guidelines suggest changing the orientatio­n and intensity of lights to curb light pollution, the use of white LED bulbs would not be restricted.

“We fear that the light pollution improvemen­ts from those suggestion­s are cancelled ( out) because cities are still using white LED lights,” Giguère says.

For two amateur astronomer­s who live in Sherbrooke, the proposed guideline simply does not go far enough. Manon Bouchard and Christine Renaud are petitionin­g to stop the proliferat­ion of LED lights and what they see as the over- lighting of cities.

“Maybe we will spend more money if we buy sodium lights instead of white LED lights, for example, but we will save on humans’ health and on cancer treatments’ costs,” says Renaud. “Isn’t that logical?”

The cost of “lighting the sky ” is estimated at $ 45 million a year in Quebec, according to the ASTRO - Lab of Mont- Mégantic National Park.

“What’s so frustratin­g about light pollution is that the problem is very solvable, compared to air pollution, which takes decades to solve,” says Cheryl Ann Bishop, communicat­ion and public affairs director at the Internatio­nal Dark- Sky Associatio­n, a non- profit organizati­on based in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s only a matter of putting on lights responsibl­y.”

Lowenthal says a significan­t number of places in Montreal could be better lit at night.

“Old Montreal is a beautiful place during the day, but it’s ugly at night because it is illuminate­d terribly," he says.

“Even George- Étienne Cartier monument on Parc Ave. is awfully lighted at night by a glaring spotlight pointing towards to sky.”

Montreal plans to orient its outdoor lights downward — a great improvemen­t — but the new lights will contain 30- per- cent blue, a disappoint­ment to Giguère: “To be recognized as dark- sky friendly, according to the Internatio­nal Dark- Sky Associatio­n, a light has to contain 20- per- cent- or- less blue colour."

The lure of cost savings will continue to add to the problem, Aubé predicts.

“On one side, scientists are telling people that light pollution and especially LED lights are bad for their health, and on the other side, LED - light companies are selling their products by saying that they are energy- efficient. The industry is very convincing on the question of energy efficiency."

But, he adds: "Maybe cities are making a huge mistake.”

 ?? J O H N K E N N E Y ??
 ?? P H O T O S : J O H N K E N N E Y ?? Montreal plans to swap out 110,000 lights across the city. In return, it hopes to cut its electricit­y bill by half and reduce maintenanc­e costs by 55 per cent.
P H O T O S : J O H N K E N N E Y Montreal plans to swap out 110,000 lights across the city. In return, it hopes to cut its electricit­y bill by half and reduce maintenanc­e costs by 55 per cent.
 ??  ?? St- Paul St. W. has a mix of street and decorative lights.
St- Paul St. W. has a mix of street and decorative lights.
 ??  ?? Critics say the widespread use of white LED lights will contribute to more than light pollution.
Critics say the widespread use of white LED lights will contribute to more than light pollution.
 ??  ?? Not everyone likes the way Old Montreal has been lit up, and they fear things are about to go in the wrong direction.
Not everyone likes the way Old Montreal has been lit up, and they fear things are about to go in the wrong direction.

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