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Experts Warn Of Health Risks As Chicago Switches To LED Streetlights

Chicago officials say 270,000 old streetlights will be replaced with energy efficient LED lights over the next four years. But health and environmental advocates warn of problems if the wrong LEDs are chosen. 

This month, the city rolled out seven pilot sites to demonstrate the proposed lights and gather public comments. But the comment period was set to end on Dec. 31, just two and a half weeks after it began. After complaints from residents, and questions from WBEZ, the city agreed to extend the comment period to Jan. 9. 

In replacing its old high-powered sodium lights with LEDs, Chicago is following cities around the country that have already gone through the process. But some have run into issues, and complaints have caused some cities to dim, retrofit or replace lights that needed more shielding to avoid glare or contained too much bright blue light (which actually looks white). 

A growing body of research links blue light exposure at night to sleep disruption and health problems. This research led the American Medical Association to issue a report this summer on LED streetlights, warning of potential problems with glare and damage to human health and the environment. It further recommended that cities choose lights with shields and a color temperature of 3000 Kelvins or less. Chicago’s proposal, so far, complies with the latter. 

As the prior chairman of the Council on Science and Public Health for the AMA, Dr. Louis J. Kraus presented the report. He said some of the physicians were initially skeptical about the Association’s role in recommending policy on streetlights. 

“But that was before they saw all the information and the science behind it,” said Kraus, who serves as the Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center. “When something starts impacting sleep health and wellbeing, in my opinion, it does become the place of the AMA to comment.”

The AMA house of delegates, he notes, voted unanimously in favor of the paper. 

Like others who are watching Chicago’s choice of LEDs, Kraus acknowledged the energy efficient, long-lasting lights have many benefits -- by some estimates, they could offer the city 50 percent energy savings. 

“But they are also ridiculously bright,” he said. “So you have to make sure they are not more than 3000K, and that they are shielded so they focus their light on the streets and the sidewalks -- not the sky or people’s homes where they could cause sleep disruption.”

Reduced light pollution?

In a statement, a city spokeswoman noted that it is adhering to the 3000K limit -- partly in response to comments from local activists, but also the AMA recommendations. Still, the lights will not have shields -- as is mandated in places like Seattle -- to prevent shining into the sky or windows in what’s called “light trespass.” 

But Rose Jordan, who is a consultant for the city on the LED project, said the new fixtures will not send light into the sky -- which could be a boon for starwatchers in a city designated by one study as the most “light polluted” in the world. 

“The only uplight will be reflected from the pavement or sides of the buildings,” she said. “In most cases there really isn’t an issue with light trespass (either) but the fixtures the city is specifying are going to be compatible with shields if they’re needed. So if a resident does experience any kind of light trespass, we can potentially install a shield to correct that.” 

She also noted that Chicago will have “one of the largest control networks in the country,” allowing it to dim lights in specific areas when needed. 

Still, some believe the city could do more. A group of students from Amundsen High School on the North Side shared their concerns about the brightness of the lights and lack of shields after checking out pilot locations last week.

Audrey Fischer, with the Chicago Astronomical Society and the International Dark Skies Association, has also offered concerns to the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, a public private financing partnership working on the project. 

Initially, she says most of her issues dealt with starlight visibility in the city, “but then I started talking directly to researchers so I could understand the health connections,” Fischer said. “And now that’s what really concerns me.”

Although, Fischer is happy that the Chicago Infrastructure Trust and city responded to her initial request to lower the light color threshold to 3000K, she’d also prefer less sleep-disruptive amber hued lights, as cities in Florida, California and Arizona have already adopted

She said recent research has also convinced her that a “2700K light would be a better choice” for the city. 

Jordan said she could not comment on whether or not the city would consider the 2700K lights. But in a written statement the city said: 

“We've been open to the concerns and feedback that interested groups have shared, and we have designed the RFP and the lighting specification in consultation with the best available science … Additionally, the public survey results will give us the opportunity to further tweak our final lighting choices with the selected vendor and allow us to address improvements before installation in the first phase of installations in 2017.”

Those who want to check out the proposed lights can find them at these pilot locations. Feedback on the lights can be submitted through a survey here. The deadline for comments has been extended to Jan. 9.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ food, health and culture reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng.

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