Light pollution is a very real issue in the City of Toronto.
Last year we sold a listing which backed onto a Petro Canada gas station located on The Danforth, where the blue LED lights cast a bright harsh light across the backyard every night of the year. It was a deal-breaker for many, but would it be one for you?
This story serves as a bit of a cautionary tale along the same lines, “It Feels Like A Film Set': Office Lights Next Door Give Leslieville Condo Residents Sleepless Nights”. Residents of a Leslieville condominium on Carlaw Avenue have been subjected to around-the-clock bright lights from a neighbouring commercial building. The city of Toronto doesn’t allow for “properties to create a nuisance for other properties”. After an inspection from the city, it was determined that this was indeed a nuisance. The commercial building owner has to do something to prevent light pollution or face hefty fines.
Shining The Light
In the history of our civilization, there have been few inventions that have been more useful and life-impacting than the lightbulb. Our lives have been made immensely more comfortable. We are able to work and play for many more hours, increasing productivity and enjoyment.
The International Dark Sky Association defines light pollution as “inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light”. This can occur from unwanted glare (i.e. from streetlights), brightening of the night sky, even over uninhabited areas, the clutter of confusing multiple light sources, or simply receiving unwanted light in areas that it isn’t desired.
This excellent article from National Geographic “Our Nights Are Getting Brighter, And Earth Is Paying The Price” summarizes the growth and negative impact on the globe of light pollution. According to this article, 83 per cent of the world’s population is living under light-polluted skies. In rural areas and less densely populated countries, the problem is less severe, but in highly illuminated urban centres (like say, Las Vegas), the sprawl of light pollution can extend to 40 miles away.
This article even tells the amusing but concerning story. After an earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994 and the power went out, Emergency Services fielded a number of 911 calls from concerned residents warning of a large cloud over the city. It turns out that it was the Milky Way. This is study shows that the Milky Way is hidden from 60 per cent of the world’s population regularly.
Light pollution is also steadily increasing, which is a concerning trend line. This study found that artificially lit areas increased by 2.2 per cent annually from 2012 to 2016, with the trend continuing up.
It’s not just light fixtures and outdoor lighting that is illuminating the night sky. With the prevalence of electronic devices, that blue glow from the zillions of screens that surround us is also contributing to light pollution and poor health.
While having the ability to shed light on demand has no doubt elevated the convenience and comfort of our lives, there has been negative fallout too. There is an impact on ecosystems around the world, with nocturnal species relying on darkness to live. It has impacted the circadian rhythms with humans, interfering with sleep and other biological functions. It has also created a disconnect between us and the night sky, which is an important connection to nature.
Interrupting Our Biology
Circadian rhythms that trigger our basic biological functions are essential to physical health. The American Medical Association in 2012 published a study called “Adverse Health Effects of Nighttime Lighting” that showed the negative physical and mental impacts of interfering with natural circadian rhythms (which is something that has plagued shift workers for years, who have lived contrary to what the natural cycle of light dictates).
With respect to an electronic billboard outside your window, it's presence could have a real impact on your personal enjoyment of the space, whether it's how the glare might disrupt your sleep or even your ability to enjoy watching television. If the billboard is constantly changing in light intensity or rhythm it could also be problematic, with instances it results in photosensitive epilepsy. You could install blackout blinds to reduce its impact, but also be aware it could have bearing on future resale value.
Interfering With The Ecosystem
Several species are impacted by the presence of light where it shouldn’t be naturally. For example, sea turtle hatchlings use the moonlight on the water as a guide when swimming out to sea. But in their native Florida, the myriad of artificial lights along the shorelines have created “false moons” disorienting the babies, who don’t survive.
Not-for-profit group Sea Turtle Conservancy has tackled this problem head-on, one coastal Florida homeowner at a time. There has been a campaign to switch outdoor lighting and alter use patterns to reduce light pollution. There have been significant improvements for the sea turtles as a result.
Another species greatly impacted by light pollution are birds. It’s a real problem in a city like Toronto where high rise after high rise dots the skyline. What this means is that loads of artificial lights are present, high up in the sky, disorienting birds, which are killed when they fly into bright windows, or fly around for long periods of time and become exhausted and fall to the ground.
According to the not-for-profit group Flap, 1 to 10 million migrating birds are lost every year in Toronto alone due to light pollution.
This breaks my heart.
Have you ever found yourself staring in wonder at the night sky once youre outside the city limits? As light pollution grown, its harder and harder to see stars in any urban centre.
Parks Canada has set up a number of dark sky preserves across the country in order to allow people to gather under the stars for an unfettered view. Maintaining a connection with our natural environment is an important part of good mental health. I’ve written about this in Dear Urbaneer: What Is Biophilia And How Can I Use It In Home Design? and Dear Urbaneer: What Are The Benefits Of Living Near Water?.
The Rise Of LED Lighting
The emphasis of artificial lighting of late has been with energy efficiency with the development of technologies like LED, which of course is important for the planet (Click here to read my post On Building Sustainable Housing In Canada). However, the suggestion is from scientists that modifying lighting to reduce energy consumption doesn’t go far enough. There needs to be consideration about how light is distributed and controlled, especially outdoors in artificial lighting situations.
The creation of LED lighting has been a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, LED lightbulbs help reduce homeowner costs and homeowner carbon footprint, which is a huge bonus for the earth. However, with the creation of “cheap and efficient” technology comes the temptation to use more of it. This is effect contributing more to light pollution.
This story “Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs Increasing Light Pollution, New Study Suggests” refers to a study that used Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suit technology to examine surface light pollution of the globe from 2012 to 2016. In North America and Europe, where there had been a movement towards LED lighting in recent years, it was expected that the measure of surface lighting would decrease, as the tool used doesn’t sense blue light emitted from LED lighting. However, in the U.S. the measure of surface lighting stayed the same, while in some European countries it increased, meaning that there are actually more points of illumination now.
What this demonstrates is that while technology is a first step to combating light pollution, it’s making conscious choices around how we use that technology to really be able to affect change.
How Homeowners Can Reduce Light Pollution
The International Dark Sky Association has recommendations around what is acceptable for outdoor lighting to minimize light pollution. In fact, they have an entire database for dark sky friendly light fixtures. Basically, fixtures that reduce glare and light trespass are desirable.
In addition to considering glare and light trespassing with outdoor fixtures, there are other steps that homeowners can take to reduce light pollution at home. Like with green initiatives for energy efficiency, it comes with being aware and making conscious choices to be part of the solution, not further contributing to the problem.
• Use dimmer switches or timers on outdoor lighting
• Shut as many lights off in your home as you can at night.
• Close your drapes at night, especially if you are in a high-rise.
• Unplug at night, shutting your electronic devices.
• Use low temperatures LED lighting
If it is your neighbour that is causing light pollution, there are many ways that you can be proactive and seek a mutually beneficial solution. Here is a list of ideas on how to deal with neighbours with bad lighting.
The possibility of light pollution shouldn't necessarily dissuade you from a property purchase, but know that it could affect value down he road. I think it's essential you confirm how you can mitigate any potential impacts of light pollution from a billboard or streetlights, as it may be a real factor in hindering resale.
When looking for a home, it is wise to consider not only the dwelling itself but what surrounds it as it may impact the quality of your daily life.
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And be sure to browse our Healthy Home Series!
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