August 22, 2019

A Self-Made Prison: Protecting Ourselves Against Light at Night and Other Forms of Pollution Comes at a Price

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an opinion piece by the astrophysicist Kelsey Johnson. Dr. Johnson is a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the college originally conceived by Thomas Jefferson.

In the Times article, Dr. Johnson points out that "…. the global amount of artificial light at night has been growing by at least 2 percent per year. ... In the United States, east of the Mississippi there remain only two very small pockets of truly dark nighttime sky — one in northern Minnesota, the other in northern Maine — that allow us to see the night sky as our distant ancestors did." She goes on to remind us that exposure to ‘light at night' (LAN) is closely linked to increased risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer. The Natural Medicine Journal (NMJ) has covered this topic several times in the past years.

  • Kurt Beil ND wrote about light pollution in the May 2019 issue
  • Dr. Heather Wright wrote about this in 2018
  • And yours truly did so the year before

By now we all are aware that light exposure at night is undesirable and most of us are teaching our patients to install ‘black-out' shades to provide protection against this form of pollution.

In a similar vein researchers in recent years have correlated exposure to fine particulate air pollution to all sorts of unwanted health problems. Likewise, NMJ has covered recent studies on this. I've written at least three pieces on this:

The eminent Dr. Julianne Forbes of Bridgton, Maine, has contributed more:

So in this case as well, many of us are urging our patients to filter the air in their homes to lower exposure to fine particulates and many of us have our HEPA air filters humming away at home.

Of course, there is water pollution as well but that is old news. We're all already drinking bottled or filtered water without having to be told. 

We've got this covered - Light blocking shades, air filters, water filters. We are creating individual clean oases to protect ourselves from the world. But at what cost? To reduce exposure to pollutants, we cut ourselves off from the world and inhabit what some would consider a prison of our own making.

Dr. Johnson described it like this: "I think there is even an existential cost. A dark night sky, unpolluted by artificial light and thousands of artificial satellites, serves as a visceral reminder that we are part of something unfathomably large, that our petty differences on this tiny speck of a planet are ultimately insignificant. In the face of the universe, human arrogance is absurd."

Ask yourself when you last saw the Milky Way? When did you last sleep with the Milky Way for company? Is seeing the night sky of value to human health? We know too much light at night is detrimental but the other side of the coin may have benefit.

Few of us would dare suggest that breathing filtered air provides the same benefit as walking through a forest. If that question gives you the slightest pause, then read Kurt Beil's articles on forest bathing:

We are nourished by our world in so many ways. Filtering the pollutants out of the world may be necessary but we should recognize that by doing so we are cutting ourselves off from a world that would nourish, enrich, heal and comfort us.

Protecting ourselves from pollutants comes at an enormous cost, one that we may pay for in time. Living in ‘clean' homes is not a solution. It is an admission of our collective failure to protect our world, our air, our water and even our night sky.

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