Night falls on the city, but darkness stays at bay as bright ribbons of red and white taillights stream down the broad roadway. On both sides, the busy cars are saluted by miniature stars caught on slim metal saplings. Oh, wait, those are just LED streetlights. However, they’re still bright enough to temporarily blind the absentminded person who stares at them for too long or throw an unfortunate migrating bird entirely off its course. Because the bright LED streetlights are so groundbreaking in their energy efficiency, people quickly overlook the hazards they pose. Although LED streetlights appear entirely beneficial, they actually threaten the health of both humans and wildlife.
LED streetlights require little maintenance and expend relatively little energy while emitting light with exceptional brightness and longevity. Because “LEDs are up to 50 percent more energy-efficient than the yellow-orange high-pressure sodium lights they typically replace,” government officials have been switching completely over to LED streetlights all across the nation, including major cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Seattle (Ollove). In 2016, LED streetlights already lit nearly thirteen percent of roads. As the use of LED streetlights expands, it becomes harder to address their drawbacks.
Potential health hazards necessitate caution as LEDs replace sodium streetlights. LED lights achieve high intensity by emitting a large amount of blue light, which has extremely high energy and a short wavelength. Naturally absent at night, blue light “appears white to the naked eye and create[s] worse nighttime glare than conventional lighting” (AMA). During the day, blue light from the sun engages people’s circadian rhythms, telling them it’s daytime and keeping them alert. At night, however, exposure to blue light artificially produced by LEDs threatens the health of humans and animals. For instance, “discomfort and disability from intense, blue-rich LED lighting can decrease visual acuity and safety,” increasing the danger of driving at night (AMA). Additionally, these lights suppress the secretion of melatonin, a compound which adjusts people’s biological clocks. Although exposure to the light of high-pressure sodium bulbs also suppresses melatonin, exposure to LED bulbs is far more damaging, causing a lack of quality sleep, exhaustion, impaired daytime functioning, and even obesity.
Despite the weight of these health issues for humans, LED streetlights threaten animals even more. For example, LED streetlights line the coasts where sea turtles live, robbing them of the dark beaches they need to nest. Although some turtles will still nest on lit beaches, the foreign brightness often disorients the hatchlings, leaving them to die of dehydration when they cannot find the ocean. Similarly, the LEDs can also disorient birds, causing them to lose their sense of direction as they migrate. Similar to porch lights luring moths inside only to be swatted, the blue light of LED streetlights draws birds to urban areas, where masses of vehicles, a lack of food, and feral cats decrease their chances of survival. Another “hazard for birds attracted to city lights is death from flying into high buildings,” making the city even deadlier for birds (Science). These unintended consequences should encourage people to use caution as they replace sodium streetlights with LEDs.
To protect creation, government officials should consider installing safer alternatives for lighting. LED lights may have better efficiency and brightness than competing lights, but these advantages should be weighed against their detriments. Precautions can lessen the negative effects. For example, dimmer models or lights with an amber glow can reduce blue light, eliminating some danger while still reaping the benefits of LED streetlights. Overall, if people use LED lights more responsibly or chose other lighting options, they can preserve the lives of animals and improve their own health, while still benefiting from a well-lit night.
“AMA Adopts Guidance to Reduce Harm from High Intensity Street Lights.” Selecting & Using a Health Information Exchange | AMA, 14 June 2016, www.ama-assn.org/ama-adopts-guidance-reduce-harm-high-intensity-street-lights. Accessed 25 September 2020.
“Information About Sea Turtles: Threats from Artificial Lighting – Sea Turtle Conservancy.” Sea Turtle Conservancy, Sea Turtle Conservancy, 2017, https://conserveturtles.org/information-sea-turtles-threats-artificial-lighting/. Accessed 25 September 2020.
Ollove, Michael. “Some Cities Are Taking Another Look at LED Lighting after AMA Warning.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Sept. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/some-cities-are-taking-another-look-at-led-lighting-after-ama-warning/2016/09/21/98779568-7c3d-11e6-bd86-b7bbd53d2b5d_story.html?utm_term=.c62aa267d3c3. Accessed 25 September 2020.
University of Haifa. “Exposure to ‘White’ Light LEDs Appears to Suppress Body’s Production of Melatonin More than Certain Other Lights, Research Suggests.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 12 Sept. 2011, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110912092554.htm. Accessed 25 September 20.