When we think pollution, toxic chemicals, poisoned lakes and oil spills are often top of mind. But in recent years, light pollution, also known as "photo pollution" and "luminous pollution," has become an issue we're increasingly aware of. Light pollution refers to annoying, harmful and just plain wasteful lighting. Unnecessary lighting also contributes to global warming by making wasteful demands on energy.
Common examples include:
• the "sky glow" surrounding urban skies, (no) thanks to the overillumination of commercial spaces, plus poorly designed street and building lights that cast as much light into the sky above as toward the ground below;
• the glare from poorly placed or overly strong streetlights, which can dangerously affect driver vision;
• extraneous and harmful lighting that can endanger wildlife: for example, the office-building lights that confuse birds and cause millions of deaths each year during migration time;
• "light trespass," say, from your neighbour's security light shining into your kitchen window;
• overilluminated interior spaces.
Light pollution also has direct effects on your health, with numerous studies linking it to weakened vision, headaches, hypertension, and even increased chances of developing cancer, according to recent studies. There's no doubt that we need to turn the lights down a few notches. Here's how to get started.
1. Reduce the light escaping from your home
Put your exterior lights on motion detectors so they only come on when needed. Minimize wattage, and direct illumination toward the ground, not upward, where it's of little use but contributes to sky glow (or goes into your neighbour's home). If you live in a multistorey building, use blackout blinds at night so birds aren't fatally attracted to your windows, and talk with your building manager or tenant's association about turning your high-rise into a Bird-Friendly Building.
2. Cool it with the indoor lighting
Put as many household lights as possible on dimmer switches so you can save energy while you enjoy mood lighting. Help your body and mind wind down toward bedtime by turning off lights. Stick with table and floor lamps, not harsh overheads.
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3. Turn the lights off at work
Collisions with man-made structures are the number one cause of death among migrating birds – many of which are already facing extinction from habitat loss. Ask your office building's management to turn off the lights during bird migration season in the spring and fall. Visit the website of the Fatal Lights Awareness Program, a Toronto organization that has successfully lobbied to get Toronto's financial core darkened during migration season, for info on its Bird-Friendly Building campaign. If you're working late and the light switch controls only the entire floor, close everyone's blinds or doors – or, if you don't mind, just use a simple desk lamp.
4. Boycott clutterbugs
"Lighting clutter" refers to the excessive grouping of lighting, especially illuminated billboards and overly lit-up commercial establishments. You can tell companies why you don't agree with what they're doing (detracting from highway safety, in many locations, cluttering the landscape, and wasting energy – in all cases), and inform them you're patronizing more eco-friendly competitors until they wise up. Will they care? If you get your friends, family and local environmental organizations involved in the letter-writing campaign, they will. And if all of you start writing to local newspapers and raising awareness of the issue, doubly so.
5. Harness your spending power
Ecotourism is a booming industry. Stay at hotels, inns and resorts that tread lightly on the earth through energy-conservation measures that enforce strict lights-out or light-blocking measures in bird-migration paths, sea turtle-nesting areas, and other particularly light-sensitive wildlife areas.
6. Get involved in municipal politics
Write, e-mail or phone your local councillor, as well as the mayor's office, to talk about city lighting. Suggest ways to reduce lighting consumption in municipal buildings (cooling it with the dramatic – yet wasteful – uplighting on building facades and off roofs is one easy way). And lobby for high-efficiency, lower-energy, flat-lens streetlight fixtures. Not only do they produce less greenhouse gases, but they also reduce glare, increasing driver, cyclist and pedestrian safety. Is your city likely to overhaul its lights overnight? No, but keep plugging away. Eventually, every street-lighting system needs upgrading, and cash-strapped municipalities will look for cost-saving and eco-friendly options.
7. Lobby for a lights-out
The 20,000 lights on Paris's Eiffel Tower were turned off for five minutes in previous years, in a symbolic gesture aiming to raise awareness about energy consumption and global warming. Start a letter-writing campaign to get your local landmark to follow suit – perhaps on Earth Day/Night. Also, ask local sports arenas and stadiums to turn off lights when games aren't playing.
8. Lights out in the wilderness
When camping and cottaging, keep exterior lights off as much as possible as they can interfere with the body clocks of nocturnal creatures like salamanders, giving them fewer hours to scavenge for food. And keep interior light indoors with blackout curtains.
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