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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Do not be afraid of the dark

17 May 2019

Beware the LED lights you've just installed as a method of saving the planet. They could cause you serious injury.

No, I'm not talking about the risk of electric shock or explosion, I'm talking about the relatively high levels of light at the blue end of the spectrum that can wreck eyes, disrupt sleep patterns and affect your health in other insidious ways.

At least that's what we're being told in a raft of reports in the media.

Apparently, according to the French Agency for Food, Environment and Occupational Health, the excessive levels of blue light can damage the retina of the eye, especially in younger people by causing cell death. The outcome of this is a loss of sharpness in one's vision.

Even the elderly are not exempt though because this same effect can contribute to the most age-related aspect of eye disease - macular degeneration.

So what's going on here? Save the planet and go blind in the process?

Whilst I would not discount the study's findings out of hand, I can't help but wonder whether this is another of those papers that has been produced more as a way of justifying a stipend than for any other purpose.

We've had very hot (blue) lighting for quite some time now.

In fact, aside from the old tungsten incandescent bulbs of yester-year, most of the newer, more energy efficient sources of light are far hotter in their colour temperature than we were used to.

For example, who never made the mistake of buying a "cool" compact fluro bulb, only to find out that it was a very harsh, decidedly blue colour when compared to the bulb it replaced?

Even halogen lights are much higher in output towards the blue (and ultra-violet) end of the spectrum -- to the extent that they're even more dangerous and in extreme situations, can even produce UV burns.

Of course we could always go back to candles... but then you've got the obvious fire risk and danger from particulates emitted by the incomplete combustion of the wax. Oh yes, and most candles use paraffin... a petroleum product so they're not "green" anyway.

No, it looks as if we either go back to the grossly inefficient incandescent bulbs or perhaps we could use lanterns fueled by whale-oil -- if we're really serious about our health or global warming respectively.

Fortunately, things are not that bad though.

Choosing a "warm" LED light (with a lower colour temperature) will apparently help mitigate the damage but, surprisingly, the report states that some anti blue-light filters or sunglasses are not effective. Seriously? Who (apart from the Blues Brothers) wears sunglasses inside under artificial lighting?

Another recommendation from the French committee intent on making us live in the dark is that car headlights should also be dimmer. I guess that road-safety wasn't within their purview eh?

This report seems all the more silly when you consider that most people spend a good part of the darker hours staring at one or more LCD screens, backlight by LEDs. Phones, TV sets and computer monitors all have a spectral output biased towards the blue and, once the inverse square law is taken into account, I strongly suspect that their emissions play a much greater role in the damage that this blue light is causing.

So there you go, don't be afraid of the dark, be afraid of the light(s)!

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