An Open Letter to Government Leaders | Long Island Eye Doctor
February 16, 2017
Dear Governor Cuomo,
I am writing to inform you of the hazards imposed by the installation of LED (light emitting diode) street lamps in our towns. The potential devastating effect on public health should be further explored before moving forward and finalizing these plans. Most people do not realize how LED lights affect health, both short and long term. This letter should provide a good basic understanding of this very important issue. Along with many of my colleagues, the American Medical Association, and researchers and health scientists, it is my opinion that installing LED lighting in street lamps represents a threat to public health.
The typical visible spectrum encompasses wavelengths between 390 to 700nm. Blue light, including violet, encompasses light wavelengths between 390 and 500nm. Scientific studies worldwide are pointing to the fact that the shorter wavelengths or high energy visible (HEV) “blue light” are harmful to human health. These shorter wavelengths are between 390 and 450nm. Another short wavelength and higher energy emitter than blue is UV (ultraviolet light). UV is invisible to the human eye. We all know that UV light is harmful to our skin and our eyes. We have developed ways to protect ourselves, reducing damaging effects from UV wavelengths, with sunscreen and sunglasses. Do we need to wait for 100 percent public awareness to protect ourselves from HEV?
To put it simply, overexposure to blue light presents a major health issue to which the public is unaware. Years ago, the only exposure we had to HEV light was the sun. I would consider this short-term exposure. Outdoors we were exposed, indoors we were not. Today we are also exposed to HEV via LED bulbs, smart phones, tablets, television screens, computer screens and CFL (compact fluorescent) bulbs. This creates issues for long term exposure. Studies have shown that it is the cumulative or total exposure to HEV light over time that causes both short and long term medical problems. The high cost of medical care is also highly associated with our exposure to blue light as will be explained below.
The public should know that HEV light is not all bad and a certain amount of HEV light exposure is needed to enhance vitamin D production in our body. Vitamin D is responsible for strong bones and protects in a host of other health problems. Photo-therapeutic benefits of blue light have also been demonstrated to help with jaundice and SAD (seasonal affective disorder). That being said, anyone who reads the newspapers or watches the news has read or heard about increases in obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), just to name a few medical issues affecting this country and others. Many of these issues are directly linked to sleep disruption; one of the major causative factors being overexposure to HEV light. In order for our bodies to get ready for sleep, our brain secretes the hormone melatonin. Melatonin production is suppressed when we are exposed to HEV light (smart phone/tablets/computer screens/TV/LED and CFL bulbs in our home). If we cannot sleep, we tend to eat, increasing our risk for diabetes, and heart disease. Our children cannot concentrate in school and sometimes are falsely labeled with ADHD. And to top it off, schools are installing LED lights in the classroom, further exposing our children to HEV light. Everyone should also know that certain cancers have been directly linked to HEV exposure.
Short term and long term effects on vision and eye health have also been well documented by optometrists, ophthalmologists and researchers. In my vision care practice, my associates and I have seen the short term effects include glare, eye strain, headaches, red eyes, dry and burning eyes, irritability, and reduced workplace productivity. The long term effects of HEV exposure that we see are more devastating. People are getting cataracts at an earlier age. Adult onset macular degeneration (AMD) has historically been considered to be a disease of people over age sixty-five. Based on today’s overexposure to HEV, scientists are concluding that AMD will soon be a disease of people in their forties. AMD, for those who are not familiar, causes a loss of central vision, severely diminishing a person’s ability to read, perceive colors, and walk without bumping into objects or tripping off a curb. Reduced mobility is one of the major causes of falls and injury in the elderly. We are very fortunate that eyeglass lens companies have developed and are constantly improving lens products that block much of the HEV wavelengths to which we are exposed. Some of these lenses have a champagne color, softening the visible “blue” in HEV blue lights. Your eye doctor must be consulted before wearing these lenses or any other tinted lens at night.
Let me recap why we are overexposed? LED or CFL lights in our home and workplace, flat screen computer monitors used by 90% of the public, smart phones and tablets used at least 4-5 hours per day or more, and then another 3 to 4 hours or more of watching our flat screen TVs. There is no getting away from HEV exposure.
Choosing to save money on energy, businesses and government offices like those in Nassau County are installing LED lighting in many of their offices and parking lots, exposing their employees to HEV light. Locally, public works projects in Great Neck and other municipalities are proposing to install unshielded LED street lamps adding to our exposure. Lighting experts explain that because LED lights are made with many small electrodes, the lights are directed in many directions, including almost horizontal. According to the American Medical Association, and the Illuminating Engineering Society, it is imperative to use glare shields on all street lamps to shield the more horizontally pointing LEDs. They further say that “there are significant hazards from not using them”. Bare bulbs should never be an option. Here are just a few reasons to use glare shields.
Safety: Glare shields prevent night blindness by directing the light where it is needed most.
Beauty: Glare shields protect our views of the stars…. Perhaps not so important in the city but why ruin life’s beauty more than it has to be ruined.
Health: Fewer people will have their sleep disrupted by super bright LED lights. According to the AMA, “It is estimated that the blue/white LED lamps have five times greater impact on circadian sleep rhythms than conventional street lamps”.
Life: Migrating birds and other nocturnal animals will have a reduced chance of being harmed by light pollution.
Indeed, LED lights are less expensive to maintain, but are they worth negatively affecting public health? It is very important to note that although a lower color temperature (3000K and below) (see figure) is better for glare, all LED street lamps emit a certain amount of HEV light. Most municipalities who have already installed LED street lamps have installed the higher color temperature lighting, a cheaper alternative but more glare producing and higher HEV exposing blue-white light. Residents in these areas are up in arms. After public outcry, the city of Davis, CA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars installing warmer LED fixtures just a month after installing white LED lamps. Phoenix residents are also complaining and they are also considering retrofitting to a lower color temperature light. Locally, LED street lamp installations in NYC and Brooklyn are being seen as a disaster by residents. They feel as if there is a film crew outside their windows and the light is spilling into their homes, disrupting their lives. Most don’t even realize that they are being exposed to additional HEV light that has potential to lead to health issues.
In June, 2016, the American Medical Association declared that LED lights are a public health risk. The AMA states, “As a result of a potential risk to public health from excess blue light exposure, the AMA report encourages attention to optimal design and engineering features when converting from existing lighting technologies to LED. These include requiring properly shielded outdoor lighting, considering adaptive controls that can dim or extinguish light at night, and limiting the correlated color temperature (CCT) of outdoor lighting to 3000 Kelvin (K) or lower. Color temperature is a measure of the spectral content of light, and higher CCT values indicate a greater amount of blue light that a fixture emits.”
It is the opinion of many experts that shielding lights so they are directed to areas that absolutely have to be lit is safer for public health, as well as for the nocturnal animals that can become very disoriented by the light pollution. It is my opinion that a municipality should be 100 percent certain that the installation of LED lights is in the best interest of the residents. Based on current research and best practices for reducing light pollution, it is just a matter of time that lawsuits are filed for either installing the wrong LED lamps or improperly shielding them in public areas. Technology is wonderful but can also be dangerous. There needs to be a balance between public benefits, health concerns, and cost savings. With what I have learned in the past few years about health issues and LED exposure and from the complaints that patients reveal in my eye care practice, my vote is for public safety.
Feel free to contact me with any questions.
Joel N. Kestenbaum, OD