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Light Pollution

Updated on November 17, 2008
Sky glow in Toronto. Photo by bensonkua.
Sky glow in Toronto. Photo by bensonkua.

Light pollution is one of the least known types of pollution, but its effects on human health and the environment can be just as serious as some better-known forms of pollution.

Types of Light Pollution

Light pollution is most severe in large cities and other built-up areas, but can be a problem in rural areas as well. Light is one of the most difficult pollutants to identify, because one person's irritating light pollutant is another's expensive billboard, or beautifully lit patio.

However, there are five basic types of light pollution:

  1. Light Trespass is one of the most annoying. A streetlight or a neighbor's porch light that shine through your window from outside is an example of light trespass.
  2. Glare is a more dangerous type of light pollution. It is caused by excessive contrast between light and dark areas in a field of vision, and it particularly affects road safety. Excessively bright or badly shielded lights can temporarily blind drivers or pedestrians, leading to accidents.
  3. Another form of light pollution that commonly affects road safety is clutter. Clutter refers to excessive groupings of lights, especially bright or flashing lights, which can distract or confuse drivers.
  4. Over-illumination refers simply to the excessive or inefficient use of lighting. Leaving lights on when they are not being used is over-illumination; so is poorly designed lighting that illuminates areas that don't need to be illuminated, or illuminates areas more brightly than necessary.
  5. Sky Glow refers to the "glow" effect that appears over populated areas at night. It is primarily a combination of reflected light from illuminated areas and badly directed light escaping into the sky, where it is scattered by the atmosphere and redirected back at the ground.

The Earth at Night

Source: NASA
Source: NASA
Source: NASA
Source: NASA
Source: Freeman Institute
Source: Freeman Institute

Effects of Light Pollution

In addition to the effects on road safety described above, light pollution affects human health in other ways.

Over-illumination both during the way and at night has been shown to lead to increased headaches and anxiety levels, higher levels of worker fatigue and stress, insomnia, and decreased sexual functioning.

Night-time exposure to light reduces the body's natural production of melatonin, an important hormone that helps regulate the immune system and serves as an antioxidant, among other functions. Reduced melatonin levels are believed to be responsible for unusually high rates of cancer in night workers, and women exposed to light at night through bright master bathroom nightlights or similar have increased rates of breast cancer. Unusually low levels of melatonin have also been observed in individuals with autism, though the exact causes and effects of this correlation are unknown at this time.

Light pollution also has environmental effects. Migrating birds, nocturnal moths, and sea turtle hatchlings are among the animals known to be disoriented by excessive illumination, sometimes fatally. At least 4-5 million birds per year are estimated to die due to collisions caused by light pollution.

Light pollution has also been associated with an increase in algae blooms on lakes, which can lower water quality and kill aquatic plants and animals.

Over-illumination is also responsible for significant amounts of energy waste in the United States and around the world, an estimated 2 million barrels of oil per day in the United States alone.

Finally, light pollution is the bane of astronomers both amateur and professional, and they have been instrumental in raising awareness of the problem.

Not all effects of light pollution can be measured. I was lucky enough to grow up in the country. Although the glow of nearby Omaha interfered on the northern horizon, it was still dark enough across most of the sky that the Milky Way and many of its best constellations were clearly visible from our yard. I still remember, however, stepping out of our tent one late night in a campground in Western Nebraska when I was about 11, glancing up... and being struck dumb by the brilliance and incalculable vastness of the stars. How can one measure awe and wonder? How can one value its loss?

What We've Lost


Reducing Light Pollution

Although reducing light pollution is complicated at the regulatory level by differing perceptions and standards, in practice it is relatively easy to combat.

Turning off lights when they're not in use not only decreases light pollution, it also lowers your energy bills. Unplugging appliances with LED displays when not in use, especially in the bedroom, also reduces both light pollution and energy bills.

Outside, choose lights that direct illumination down and allow a minimum of light to escape to the side. The International Dark-Sky Association includes extensive information about best choice lighting fixtures and design for residential, commercial, and municipal applications.The U.S. Green Building Council also factors light pollution reduction into its LEED Rating System, and Alin Tolea, of Johns Hopkins University, offers some examples of good lighting vs. bad lighting on his website.


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    • profile image

      Eminem 7 years ago

      This is going to be my next science project

    • greenatheart profile image

      greenatheart 7 years ago from Orange County, CA

      This was a very informational hub. I never knew all those effects would be followed after light pollution. Some things to take into account I guess. Thanks for sharing.

    • zohaibnisar profile image

      zohaibnisar 8 years ago from pakistan

      Most Polluted Cities

      Each continent has its own ecological bane that always gets on the list of the worst polluted places on our globe. Be it dirty air of North America’s cities or extremely contaminated soils found in the smelting hubs of Africa or South America, these places beg for mercy and some substantial clean-up programs. You will not include these locations in your next itinerary, unless you need a warning and reminder of how people should not treat the Earth.

    • Yard of nature profile image

      Yard of nature 8 years ago from Michigan

      Leaving near a Great Lake, a large state park and a national forest, we actually have dark skies at night and I so enjoy the stars. It gets better the farther north you go. One plus to the light pollution, when cross-country skiing at night in winter, generally the lights of town cast a glow to the south of trails I use. Hard to get lost with that kind of glow in the sky.

      Good work on the hub.

    • hot dorkage profile image

      hot dorkage 9 years ago from Oregon, USA

      Motion activated lights. Everywhere. The end.

    • Stacie L profile image

      Stacie L 9 years ago

      I like this hub!

      It's so relevant today. i used to live in a populated city in Florida and saw the lighted sky at night.

      Now I see stars!

    • Melissa G profile image

      Melissa G 9 years ago from Tempe, AZ

      Great hub, kerryg. I also miss the star-studded brilliance of evening skies from when I was younger, and I hope we find a way to recaputure the wonder and beauty of a sky full of stars.

    • profile image

      Toronto condos 9 years ago

      i have thought about this many times before...but how can we avoid it? is not this just the price for civilization?

    • Netters profile image

      Netters 9 years ago from Land of Enchantment - NM

      Wow, that's very interesting. Makes you think. Thank you.