Cities across Canada are swapping old street lights for more energy efficient LED models and facing an insurmountable problem: a lot of people hate them.
“It feels like it’s early morning all night long,” says Hillary Harris from her Halifax bedroom, as she stuffs a blanket in the cracks of her curtains to block the light from a new street light outside.
Harris says the whiteness of the light keeps her whole family up at night — even her cat, Coco.
Her complaint is one that’s supported by research from the American Medical Association.
Last spring, the AMA warned against LED street lights that are too blue or white, saying those lights can suppress melatonin, affect our sleep and lead to obesity. It advises cities to choose lights that emit more of a warm, white glow similar to that of a table lamp.
“I’ve been awake at four in the morning … in floods of tears because I’m so frustrated after day in and day out of waking up all through the night,” says Harris.
Many cities considered the conversion to LED street lights an environmental and financial no-brainer. While pricey to install, the new lights are promised to last for decades, be maintenance-free and cost considerably less to burn. They also shine as a symbol of eco-awareness.
But the trade-off is not turning out quite that easy. LED street lights have been blamed for stealing the romance of Rome, ruining nighttime film production in Los Angeles, disorienting salmon in the Sacramento River and keeping people like Harris awake everywhere.
Halifax is just one Canadian city in the midst of installing lights that go against AMA guidelines. Though the $47-million planned system there allows lights to dim, that feature will not address the colour of the light.
Officials in Ottawa say they’ll continue to install their lights despite the AMA’s warnings, while earlier this year Montreal announced it would rethink its $100-million plans.
“It’s a worldwide problem and it’s not an easy one to resolve,” says lighting consultant Jim Benya.”Once you bought this system, you’re stuck with it and that’s at the core of why this is a significant debate right now.”
Benya’s home city of Davis,Calif., is a rare example of a place where public outcry actually forced the city to swap out new too-white LED street lights with warmer ones after reports say hundreds of people lined up to fight them at a city council meeting.
“People came out of the woodwork,” says Benya. “Environmentalists hated them. Astronomers hate them and many community members just hated the loss of the ambience.”