Could some of your health problems be down to artificial lighting?
We may sense the upbeat of sudden sunshine, or feel a preference for a café with inviting lighting, but in general we don’t pay much attention to light. Yet the quality and quantity of light we’re exposed to has a profound effect on our bodies and minds. All living beings – ourselves included – have evolved to a fundamental rhythm of dark nights and light days and are finely tuned to adjust to subtle cues as light dawns or fades. Light tells plants which way to grow and birds when to sing. It affects our mood, skin, nervous system, eyesight, sex drive and circadian rhythm.
We spend more and more of our lives exposed to artificial light, and now the nature of that light is changing dramatically, in ways we may not understand but which our bodies perceive. The EU ban on incandescent lighting has forced the move to new forms of ‘low-energy’ lighting, which contains more of the blue end of the light spectrum. While the legislation seemed well intentioned, many people began to report pain and ill health when exposed to new forms of light, especially LED and modern fluorescent, with symptoms including searing eye pain, migraine and debilitating headaches, skin rashes, dizziness, agitation and anxiety.
It is not yet fully understood why certain forms of light seem to be causing such diverse health problems. Senior medical professionals are expressing concern about the effect of new forms of light on our eyes, skin, nervous system and sleep. It may be that different aspects, such as the amount of blue light, glare, electro-magnetic radiation and flicker are responsible for different symptoms.
Professor Arnold Wilkins, an expert in visual perception from Essex University, says flicker is the most likely explanation for headaches, nausea and dizziness in office workers.
“Our research shows that the incidence of headache increases when fluorescent lighting flickers,” he says, “and we have long known that at low frequencies, flicker can cause seizures.”
Professor Wilkins explains that our brains can be affected by flicker, with disrupted communication between the eye and brain, even if we are not visually aware of it: “Sometimes it’s too rapid to see, but it can still be a problem. Flicker causes the neurons in the brain to react at the same time, making it difficult for the brain to work out what is going on.”
The extent of flicker in LED lighting is determined by of the electronic circuits that drive the lights, says Professor Wilkins. “Some people are more sensitive to flicker than others,” he explains. “There is an obligation to light public places in ways that are not flickering.”
But until this is better understood and acknowledged, new lighting is causing extreme social exclusion as those who cannot tolerate it find themselves unable to access public spaces, including schools and colleges, health centres and hospitals, places of worship, sports and recreation, and even the streets at night.
Elaine, 38, from Ireland, had to leave her job and then her home because of severe sensitivity to LED lighting. “When new streetlights were erected outside my house, I couldn’t even step into the front garden without severe eye pain, migraine, dizziness and nausea. It hits me immediately,” she explains. ‘‘At the very same time as the streetlights, our monitors at work were changed to LED back-lit monitors. I was already struggling and extremely sick at work with the overhead LED lighting. I was living on painkillers and anti sickness tablets just to get through the day. I couldn’t tolerate the monitors even for a few seconds so I had no choice but to leave my job.”
Elaine is not alone. The charity LightAware, which raises awareness of the impact of artificial light on health and wellbeing, hears from people all over the world who are now struggling to light their homes and live their lives. LightAware believes it is unjust to ban a safe form of lighting with no provision for those who cannot tolerate the alternatives.
Elaine moved to the country but is now plagued by LED lights from nearby farms.
“I don’t know where else to go,” she says. “I hope and pray that this gets resolved in our lifetime. I am in my 30s, but living the life of an isolated 85-year-old.”
Visit lightaware.org for more information.
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