CHI-TOWN LOW DOWN: Light pollution threatens Chicago’s health

By Managing Editor

Chicago may be the best-lit city in the U.S., as more than 250,000 sodium vapor lights create orange, ribbon-like patterns throughout the streets extending from the South Side to the North Side. The view from the top of the Willis Tower or flying into O’Hare International Airport at night showcases views of the city’s orange grid-like structure, which can also be seen clearly from space.

The city uses a number of different light fixtures to adequately light the streets, according to IllinoisLighting.org. The lights are important to the safety of Chicagoans as well-lit areas may contribute to a decrease in crime rates. According to a February 2014 study conducted by the Chicago Department of Transportation, crime increased by 7.4 percent in areas that experienced streetlight outages. The study states that streetlights help prevent theft and assault, but what it doesn’t note is that the streetlights are a double-edged sword.

A 2011 documentary called, “The City Dark,” sheds light on the negative effects of light pollution. The film looks at cities like Chicago and the use of streetlight lamps that reflect light into the sky, blocking the stars and disrupting circadian rhythms—physical, mental and behavioral changes that respond to light and darkness—and evolution.

However, Chicago officials are looking for ways to light up the city more in an effort to attract increased tourism. Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed a “Lighting Framework Plan” in 2014 that invited designers to rethink how the city could be decorated with more light. For example: lighting the edges of the Chicago River.

The LFP briefly mentions that the city is seeking ways to reduce direct upward light—the main cause of light pollution—directly affecting the migration of birds. The proposal notes the importance of wildlife migration, but what about the health of Chicagoans?

The documentary also follows a breast cancer patient who worked a night shift for years. Epidemiologist Richard Stevens from the University of Connecticut conducted research on light pollution, where he discovered that night-shift workers are twice as likely to develop breast cancer than day-shift workers. He also found that disrupted circadian rhythms caused by light pollution are extremely harmful.

Chicago officials and Emanuel will do anything to boost tourism at any cost and to attempt to lower crime rates with quick-fix actions that serve as a Band-Aid and ignore the bigger issues at hand.

There are light fixtures that efficiently light streets and reduce the amount of wasted light—more than 93 million kilowatt-hours per year, according to IllinoisLighting.org, causing health problems for wildlife and residents. Emanuel should tackle the issue of light pollution before he thinks about illuminating the city more to attract tourists.

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