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Local 12 Investigates: LED city street lights: A glowing danger

LED city street lights: A glowing danger

BRIGHTER, WHITER LIGHTS

As night falls on the tristate, a new, brighter and whiter light is beginning to shine. Light Emitting Diodes, or L.E.D.’s, are at the center of these new street lights. They produce more light at approximately half the cost of those old, familiar high-pressure sodium lights, which produce an amber to yellow hued light.

The lower-cost, bright-light combination is why L.E.D.’s are now popping up on our roads and streets, highways and byways, even in a tunnel many of us drive through.

According to the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), approximately 1,100 L.E.D.’s are included in the 46 thousand streetlights on Ohio’s roads and highways.

DARKER SIDE?

While the energy savings are embraced by nearly everyone, the nation’s largest group of physicians, the American Medical Association (AMA) is warning about a potential darker side to these new L.E.D. street lights.

According to an AMA report many of the new street lights are “unshielded,” could be, “creating a road hazard.”

When asked if he’s worried about that effect when driving a car at night, AMA president Dr. Andrew Gurman did not hesitate with his answer, “Yes. It does.”

According to Dr. Gurman and the AMA, the potential hazard on the roads is caused by the brightness and color of the new lights.

BLUE HUE

Many of the new L.E.D. street lights emit a color temperature of 4 thousand Kelvins, abbreviated as 4 thousand k, which contains a large amount of blue in that white light.

“The 4000 k lights are the ones you see on the cars coming at you,” Dr. Gurman explained, adding that the street lights are nearly identical in color temparature, “They are about 29 percent blue light which you can't see, but that light rattles around inside your eyeballs, particularly as you get older. And that blue light can be very harmful. It causes glare,” he said.

In the report, the AMA describes that as "disability glare,” that creates a “veil of illuminance,” which, in some cases, “leads to worse vision than if the light never existed at all.”

In the interview, Local 12’s Duane Pohlman noted, “"Those are strong words!"

"Well, that's what's in the report," Dr. Gurman answered.

TUNNEL VISION

That glare is apparent if you drive through the Lytle Tunnel on I-71 in downtown Cincinnati.

As part of a $30 million upgrade, new L.E.D. lights are being installed on the sides of the tunnel and as we documented, the new lights produce a lot of glare.

When Local 12 told Dr. Gurman about the new lights and glare in the tunnel, Dr. Gurman said, “The way you describe it certainly concerns me.”

After the interview, we brought the issue to ODOT. An ODOT spokesperson wrote back, stating, “There is an ongoing conversation about what kind of lights will (now) be installed in the (Lytle) tunnel.”

DISRUPTING SLEEP / HEALTH CONSEQUENCES

There are other “potential health effects of the new L.E.D. lighting,” described in the AMA report, as well, including “disruption of sleep quality.”

While that sounds trivial, compared to the potential glare hazard, the AMA insists it is a serious issue.

At the center of the sleep-disruption concern, the AMA states, is how that blue light inhibits our body’s natural production of melatonin, a key compound that tells our body to fall asleep.

“It turns out that exposure to large amounts of blue light interferes with melatonin production,” Dr. Gurman explained.

According to the AMA report, the new “L.E.D. lamp is at least 5 times more powerful” than high pressure sodium lights at influencing “melatonin suppression.”

And while it’s still being studied, the report states, “some evidence supports a long-term increase in the risk for cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity from chronic sleep disruption… associated with exposure to brighter light sources in the evening.”

According to Dr. Gurman, the new brighter, bluer street lights can have a lasting effect.

“The effect seems to last long after you park your car or pull in to the garage,”

BLOCKING THE BLUE LIGHT AT NIGHT

Complaints about the new lighting in residential communities have popped up across the country, from Seattle, WA to New York, NY.

“Some of them have to make accommodations, like putting blackout curtains and other measures to prevent that light from getting in to their houses because they were noticing that they were having difficulty sleeping, as well,” Dr. Gurman explained.

Local 12 reached out to Duke Energy to find out where the new L.E.D. streetlights have been installed tristate and discovered 800 of the new lights have been installed in and around the University of Cincinnati, making it the largest concentration of the new lighting, which is significant because it’s a location where many students live.

After requesting information, Duke Energy Spokesperson Sally Thelen told us, the company is aware of the AMA report, “We have our own internal team that's looking at it and certainly seeing if there are other steps that we need to take with how we're using LED's on our system."

CONFUSION FOR CRITTERS, TOO

If “disability glare” and “potential health effects” from sleep deprivation weren’t enough to cause concern, the AMA report also says the new lights are having “detrimental effects” on animals and insects, many of whom are nocturnal. The new nighttime lights, the AMA report states, can lead to “confusion, collisions and death” for birds,” insects…circling under them until they are exhausted and die” and even an example from Washington State, where “bridge lighting that is “too blue,” inhibiting migration of certain fish species such as salmon.”

DOE DISPUTES REPORT

On its home page, The US Department of Energy (DOE), which has advocated for the new L.E.D. street lights, is disputing many of the conclusions of the AMA report, stating, “There's nothing inherently different about the blue light emitted by L.E.D.s," noting, “the implications (of the AMA report) apply to all light sources, including, but by no means limited to, LEDs."

SIMPLE SOLUTION

While there is a dispute about whether there’s truly a new hazard represented by L.E.D. lighting, both the AMA and the DOE seem to agree there is a simple remedy to the issue: Toning down the lights. DOE states the "blue light emitted can be minimized" by dimming the fixture. Dr. Gurman and the AMA report agree with that fix and recommend another important recommendation,

“Go to the 3000K bulbs,” Dr. Gurman said, “which would eliminate the high percentage of blue light.”

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