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Light Pollution Contributes to Cancer, Says Dark-Sky Association

Everybody knows about the sea turtles, how the night lights of civilization disorient their newly hatched young, luring them inland rather than to the sea, and to their deaths. But light pollution may do more, according to the South Florida chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association, impacting human health and playing a role in breast and prostate cancers.

This isn't entirely new information, but by the look of things, it's not widely known, or at least appreciated, in South Florida. A night landing here shows the 100-mile-long, 30-mile-wide swath of light that is our landscape: a gaudy serpent -- the result of "light that is not being efficiently or completely utilized and is often pointed outwards or upwards and not downwards," as the IDA defines light pollution.

Founded in June 2012, the IDA's local chapter resulted from the chance encounter of chapter President Bryan Bodie, a Delray Beach sales manager and amateur astronomer, and Vice President Eric Vandernoot, who works as coordinator of the FAU observatory. When Bodie visited the observatory in November 2011, talk of stargazing turned to its difficulty in South Florida's nighttime environment, then to the other issues raised by light pollution, which Vandermoot had studied.

"I had been aware of the sea turtles," Bodie told New Times, "and was surprised there was no Dark-Sky group here. And after talking to Eric, I saw the need to educate and communicate."

Light pollution's impact on human health, as Vandernoot explains it, stems from the influence of light on our circadian rhythms, hormonal cycles that regulate body function. The link to breast cancer is that light pollution appears to suppress the normal, nighttime production of the hormone melatonin, which "normally impedes cancer cell growth and can even cause cancer cell death." Other studies have tied light pollution to prostate cancer.

In the animal kingdom, many creatures other than sea turtles also suffer disruption to long-evolved biological patterns, according to Vandernoot, "exposing them to predators and reducing the time they have to find food, shelter, or mates and reproduce."

Vandernoot takes a fairly radical position on night lighting:

I would argue that it would be best not to use any lights at all. Even if you believe that they have to be used, I believe you should think again. For while it is better to use the bluer lights, mercury vapor, metal halide, or fluorescent lamps, for the sake of some trees, it is those very bluish lights, because of their impact on human melatonin, human vision, and animals that should be avoided for our own sake. In the end, there is no winning in using any type of lamp... No species of life evolved under artificial lights. We should not be surprised that, in general, no species of life truly benefits from them in the long run.

The IDA chapter are not night-light abolitionists, however, advocating only that light pollution be addressed and ameliorated. Light pollution in South Florida increases at such a pace that it doubles every 11 years, according to Vandernoot. There's "more acceptance of the need to address it than there is with climate change," he told New Times. "But where there's ignorance, there's apathy."

The IDA website offers information and advice on technical and legal aspects of the issue, including nitty-gritty stuff like "how to talk to your neighbors." The group has linked up with other environmentally conscious organizations -- the Audobon Society, the Florida Trail Association -- and government entities -- the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

Future activity by the group includes presentations at the 2013 Swamp Heritage Festival in Big Cypress National Park on December 7 and the Everglades Coalition Conference in January, as well as assistance to a National Park Service Night Skies team visiting the Big Cypress and Everglades parks in January and February.

A full calendar of IDA South Florida meetings and special events, as well as contact info, can be found here.

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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