Environmental Health Perspectives
23 April 2018
The increase of artificial light at night (ALAN) in cities has altered the natural light levels in the nocturnal environment and extended human activities into the usually dark hours (Falchi et al. 2011). It has been estimated that more than 80% of the world population (99% of the population from the United States and Europe) and almost one-fifth of the world terrain is under light-polluted skies that suffer from an excessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial (usually outdoor) light (Cinzano et al. 2001; Falchi et al. 2011, 2016). Migration toward the light emitting diode (LED) technology in urban settings has resulted to an increase in ALAN and particularly an increase of the blue light spectrum due to the use of white LED as the new urban light standard (Kyba et al. 2017).
In 2007, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that shift work that involves circadian disruption is “probably carcinogenic to humans” (IARC 2007). The epidemiological evidence mostly focused on breast cancer, but since 2007 studies on night shift have examined other cancers and several have identified modest increased risks for prostate cancer (Behrens et al. 2017), particularly among advanced tumors (Papantoniou et al. 2016). Several mechanisms related to the circadian system and exposure to light at night were examined by IARC involving suppression of melatonin production, alterations of sleep–activity patterns, and deregulation of circadian genes. Depending on light intensity and wavelength, exposure to ALAN may affect human health by decreasing the production and secretion of pineal melatonin (N-acetyl-5-methoxytriptamine), which is a hormone normally produced in the dark phase of the 24-h cycle (Brainard et al. 2001; Chang et al. 2014; Escofet and Bará 2015; Thapan et al. 2013). Melatonin is related to cancer through several pathways (IARC 2010; Korkmaz and Reiter 2008), including effects on estrogen-receptor positive human breast cancer cells (Hill et al. 2015). Studies in day and night shift workers have shown a delay in peak time and lower melatonin levels in night workers with mean urinary 6-sulfatoxymelatonin (aMT6s) levels of 10.9 ng/mg creatinine per hour compared with 15.4 in day workers (Papantoniou et al. 2014). Data showing similar patterns in the general population in relation to ALAN are limited. For example, subjects reading light-emitting devices (e.g., eBook) before sleeping compared with a printed book, took longer to fall asleep, had reduced evening sleepiness, reduced melatonin secretion, later timing of their circadian clock, and reduced next-morning alertness (Chang et al. 2015).