You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Reclaiming The Nighttime Sky

Judith H. Dobrzynski, formerly a reporter and a senior editor at The New York Times and Business Week, as well as a senior executive at CNBC, is a writer based in New York.

Will 2009 be the year the federal government finally takes light pollution seriously? That's the hope of the International Dark-Sky Association, a Tucson-based group that just opened an office in Washington, D.C. The move is a sign that the IDA is expanding its mission beyond simply educating the public about the perils of too much light during the nighttime. Going forward, it also plans to educate the federal government—specifically the EPA—on the subject.

It's hard not to notice that much of the world is ablaze in light even after the sun goes down. According to the United Nations, 2008 was the first year that more than half the world's population, some 3.3 billion people, was living in urban areas. Bigger cities mean more light at night from streetlamps, neon advertising, office lights kept on, bright stadiums.... (Across the U.S., you can see for yourself how the night has changed already—and how it may get worse.) Not only does all this light pollution obscure the stars, create driving hazards, and cause insomnia, but it can also disrupt animal-behavior patterns and confuse birds, which end up colliding more frequently with tall structures. Plus, there's all that the wasted energy to consider.

More worrisome still (although the science isn't yet conclusive on this), excessive light during the nighttime may even be hazardous to human health. According to a paper published in the January issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, "a growing body of scientific research suggests light pollution can impair biologic functions in both humans and wildlife. Researchers are working to determine the extent and nature of associations between light pollution and human health effects such as cancer [promoting tumor growth], cardiovascular disease, depression, and insomnia." The paper doesn't break much new ground, but it does round up studies providing plenty of circumstantial evidence that exposure to too much light is at least correlated with all kinds of health problems. It may hurt our sex lives, too—since too much light can hinder animal mating and migration behaviors, not to mention worsening psychoses.

More work still needs to be done. Nevertheless, the paper reports a startling fact: In 2001, "63% of the world population and 99% of the population of the European Union and the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) live in areas where the night sky is brighter than the threshold for light-polluted status set by the International Astronomical Union."

Last summer, after a meeting that IDA hosted with about 25 Capitol Hill staffers, eleven congressional representatives were persuaded to send a letter to then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. They asked the agency to take up the issue, starting with an official definition of "light pollution." But the missive went unanswered until mid-November, when Bush administration officials essentially kicked the issue down onto President Obama's field. The new IDA office now has a two-pronged strategy: It's reaching out to other environmental groups to build a broader, more powerful coalition, and it's seeking a meeting with the new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson. Work on Capitol Hill will also be a priority.

According to Bob Parks, IDA's managing director in Washington, the IDA knows the smoking-gun science about the health risks of light pollution isn't there yet. So it wants to begin with the EPA simply recognizing the issue and putting some money into research on it. Before light pollution can be regulated, "They need a reason to believe it's an environmental hazard," Parks says. "That opens up their discretionary funds." Parks knows the federal process could take years before there's any real improvement. Meanwhile, IDA is working with the National Park Service to change lighting fixtures and set aside dark-sky enclaves, where people can actually view the stars. In any way it can, IDA has to carpe noctem.

--Judith H. Dobrzynski