Thursday, 2 April 2020

Light changes everything


I’VE always been fascinated by light. Or perhaps, to put it more accurately, by the lack of dark compared to the perpetual electronic daylight most of us now live in and accept as the norm.

It may have been an early interest in astronomy and growing up under big Fenland skies that first prompted this lifelong interest. The stunning wonder of the heavens in a gloriously dark and primitive sky that, in those days, was hardly touched even by artificial satellites.

A decade or so ago I started taking a more professional interest in new types of lighting and its potential impacts on life in general and human health in particular, attending some international lighting conferences and writing about the subject more widely through my work as a freelance journalist.

I had a feeling deep in my gut that something about our modern forms of light and our more recent headlong dash to LED technology wasn’t quite right - and yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Of course, I was as keen as anyone to promote better dark skies by removing as much of the unnecessary light pollution as possible that now pervades our life after darkness falls. I was also a keen supporter of the fledgling environmental movement so, like most of us, I quickly bought into the industry-led narrative about LED lighting, its energy-saving properties and how good it would be for our planet.

Was there a downside? On the face of it there didn’t appear to be one and it seemed we were all left with little choice but to purchase vastly more expensive LED technology light bulbs. Okay, so the cost was a bit steep compared to the incandescent bulbs we were all replacing but if we were saving Earth in the process surely that was a price worth paying?

But all along the light sensitive ‘eyes’ in my gut were posting warning signs about the slow but inexorable creep of modern-day LED lighting.

In the past few years they might have darkened the heavens in a few locations though that might be more the result of councils up and down the country switching off lighting to save money.

What we might have saved in energy consumption on an individual light has likely more than been replaced by the massive increase in the quantity of lighting installations of all kinds. In reality, LEDs have led to a pandemic of uncontrolled and excessive lighting inside our homes, on public buildings, on transport and on the roads.

Driving home after dark the other evening, I was momentarily blinded by the dazzling headlights of an oncoming car. At first I thought the driver had mistakenly left his lights ‘on beam’ but then I realised this excessive brightness was a new normal for night-time driving. These were just the ultra-bright LED headlights now installed as de facto standard on every new car.

I fear I am not alone in finding overly bright vehicle headlights an increasing driving and road safety problem - and not always just at night, sometimes in the daytime too.

It seems our lighting designers - whether for street “function”, inside the home or on motor vehicles - have run with the excitement of LED technology merely because it was new and the latest thing.

In the process little thought has gone into its intense luminosity, blue-white colour balance or the fact that LED light is acutely directional, more akin to a laser than a conventional light source with excessive glare, a huge increase in light intensity at the centre and a very sharp cut-off.

The UK is not alone. Populations around the world have readily embraced these new forms of light, often unwittingly and without due process to its effect on our bodies and the environment. If I have learnt one thing whilst studying this issue over recent years it is that light is not just light.

Certainly the more intense blue-white light of lower cost high lumen LEDs is potentially damaging for us whether in the home or outdoors - and, treated without due caution, may actually turn out to be a lot worse than our now rejected traditional forms of incandescent lighting.

In her recently published book (Incandescent, September 2019), journalist Anna Levin throws her own spotlight on the transforming colour and tone of our everyday environments. “Light is changing, dramatically. Our world is getting brighter - but is brighter always better?” she asks.

The thrust of Levin’s book is that natural light (and dark) is fundamental to almost every aspect of life on Earth, interacting with humans and animals in profound yet subtle ways. “We mess with the eternal rhythm of dawn-day-dusk-night at our peril,” says Levin. “But mess with it we have, and we still don't truly understand the consequences.”

She claims that technology and legislation have crushed our previously warm, incandescent lighting in favour of harsher, often glaring alternatives.

And there is the irony. Since regulations were passed introducing legislation banning incandescent lamps, domestic energy consumption has actually risen and so, according to the UK Department for the Environment, there has been no overall saving.

In recent years there can be no question that our night-time world has been rapidly infiltrated by a voracious predator - an un-natural form of light that is both seen and unseen at the same time.

Incandescent is a well-researched and written book, with accessible analysis and explanations supported by technical details about LED lighting’s potential impact on human health and the wider environment. It throws an intriguing new light on an unanticipated problem that is only now becoming recognised.

Some useful links:
Anna Levin - Incandescent
LightAware - charity & support
Soft Lights - lighting with thought 
Clive Simpson - Writer & Editor