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How an effort to reduce fossil fuel use led to another environmental problem: Light pollution

Sumeet Kulkarni, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Longcore calls it "an accident of history" that the first LEDs to become readily available were blue-white in color. LEDs that produce warmer colors with similar levels of efficiency are now available, but the original remains popular with consumers who prefer the way it mimics daylight.

Because of sky glow, light pollution isn't just a local phenomenon. Even areas hundreds of miles from urban centers cannot escape it.

"You can see Los Angeles from Death Valley at night," Meadows said.

The reason light pollution is steadily getting worse, Hartley said, is that people aren't even aware it's a problem.

"I don't think anyone intentionally sets out to pollute the night," he said. But when it comes to lighting up our surroundings for the sake of safety, "there's an assumption that because a little bit of light is good, more light must be better."

The one good thing about light pollution is that, unlike pollution caused by chemicals or plastics, it's fully reversible. Simply turn off enough lights and the dark skies will be back in an instant.

"The solution doesn't mean plunging us into medieval darkness," Hartley said. It involves thinking carefully about the purpose of each lamp installed, making sure its light is restricted to its intended space, and turning it on only during the time it is needed.

Mexico, France and Croatia have enacted national light pollution laws. Since 2013, France has required all shops and offices to turn off their lights after 1 a.m.


Nineteen states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have laws on the books to prevent light pollution. Arizona, home to several large telescopes, requires all exterior lights to be fitted with shields that prevent light from escaping skyward. Some coastal areas in Florida mandate low-power amber lights that won't draw sea turtle hatchlings away from the safety of the Gulf of Mexico.

No such laws exist in California, but Assemblyman Alex Lee, D-San Jose, introduced a bill that would require all outdoor lights on state government buildings to be shielded and have warmer color tones. They'd also need to be dimmed or shut off at night, though they could turn on if activated by a motion sensor.

The bill has passed both houses of the Legislature, and it's now up to Gov. Gavin Newsom to decide whether to sign it.

Being limited to state property, the bill doesn't address the worst culprits of light pollution, which include stadium floodlights, industrial lights, outdoor residential lights and streetlights.

Still, Longcore sees it as "a first baby step that has to be taken." If the government leads by example, more people will recognize the importance of this issue, he said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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