Light Pollution

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Eye from Albany
April 2002

Light Pollution
By Paul M. Bray

It is believed by some that early man got off his knees and stood upright to better view the stars. Twinkling stars and celestial creatures of the night have not been very bright in the sky over most of New York State for many decades. Dava Sobel wrote about one of the consequences in Audubon Magazine, “The blight of urban sky glow stops children from wishing on stars and lovers from counting them.”

Despite the best efforts of the State Legislature, getting control of light pollution or wasteful and dangerous use of outdoor lighting has been shelved by the Governor’s disapproval of comprehensive outdoor lighting management legislation passed by the Senate and Assembly in 2001.

The fate of light pollution legislation reveals a lot about how the wheels of government turn in Albany. In brief, it teaches us that the legislature actually can get a head of the curve, but the forces against change, as expected, are formidable and not subject to reason.

Three years ago when Manhattan Assemblyman Pete Grannis and Long Island Senator Michael Balboni introduced comprehensive legislation to regulate light pollution, the bill was initially perceived as not being able to pass the “laugh test”. Pollution had to be at least smelly or toxic and certainly light didn’t fit any of our established notions of contamination. In fact, wasn’t light good or at worst benign? In the 1970s when I was a legislative bill drafter I drafted a bill that protected a property owners “right to light” for solar energy purposes.

A good sense of the extent of light pollution has recently been provided by the first world atlas of the artificial night sky brightness at sea level. “It provides a nearly global picture of how mankind is proceeding to envelope itself in a luminous fog.” The authors of the Atlas point out, “About two thirds of the World population and 99% of the population in US (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) and EU live in areas where the night sky is above the threshold set for polluted status.”

It turns out that there is an increasing body of evidence that light pollution is not simply something astronomers decry because it obstructs the view of the skies, but a matter of public health, safety, energy security and environmental quality affecting all of us.

A report “In praise of Darkness” on ABC World News Tonight noted that we need darkness to make our immune systems work. It reported, “Scientist have now discovered that only when it is really dark can your body produce the hormone call melatonin. Melatonin fights diseases, including breast and prostate cancer.”

Low quality and poorly sited night lighting can be a safety hazard due to glare-limiting visibility. Much artificial night light is justified on the grounds of safety. Yet, there is no conclusive evidence that lighting prevents crime or guarantees security. In Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a city implementing a Smart Lighting retrofit program, its police service reported, “It may have been argued that common sense dictated that greater lighting translated into greater safety. However, we now know this is not true.”

Nonhuman organisms are affected as well by artificial light at night. It is estimated that millions of migrating birds die every year when they collide with brightly lit high rise buildings. They are turning off the lights of the Sears Tower in Chicago at night to save birds.

Marianne V. Moore, an acquatic ecologist at Wellesley College, is studying the effects of light pollution on lakes. These studies are producing evidence of a causal link between light pollution and algal blooms and poor water quality. This has serious implications if this link is found in the coastal waters of Long Island.

Others drivers for controlling light pollution have been privacy concerns from outdoor lighting shining into bedroom windows and energy waste from unnecessary lighting costing billions of dollars.

Opposition to the light pollution bill from local governments, utilities and, yes, even the Department of Environmental Conservation didn’t manifest itself until the bill passed the legislature. It seems that the opposition was caught unaware by the bill and reacted with an almost knee jerk don’t bother us with the facts, don’t tell us what we have to do. This was especially strong from some local government officials, our public servants. But as the bill was increasingly endangered last fall, its support has crystallized and become vocal.

In his disapproval message Governor Pataki called the light pollution bill “a well-intentioned effort to deal with the myriad issues posed by outdoor lighting.” The legislature deserves our kudos for leadership in bringing the myriad of light pollution issues to the forefront of public discourse and offering a prudent approach for public action.

Now it is up to the Governor and local officials to offer their solutions to the light pollution problem. It is an issue that won’t go away until it solved.

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an Albany based environmental and planning law firm, and his e-mail address is PMBRAY@aol.com.