Ignored Detriments: Examining Light and Sound as Pollutants

We often think of pollution in terms of its more tangible forms, such as smoke as air pollution or garbage as land pollution.

Conservation efforts usually focus on reducing these pollutants, but rarely pause to think about other types of pollutants that often get ignored due to their nature. These are namely sound and light, both of which pollute our environment when in excess and can have detrimental, though ignored, side effects. 

Noise PollutionNoise pollution is defined as “an unwanted or disturbing sound which can interfere with normal activities for humans and wildlife, such as sleeping, conversation, reproduction, communication, or disrupt or diminish one’s quality of life.” In today’s world, the sources of noise pollution are plenty. From automobiles, motorcycles, aircraft, construction equipment and more, noise pollution is generated from almost almost every innovation since the industrial revolution.


Unfortunately people underestimate the effects of this excess sound, and do nothing to control it. We should be concerned though, as noise pollution can have some serious consequences. According to the World Health Organization, noise pollution can interfere with people’s daily activities at school, work, and leisure time. It can disturb sleep, cause cardiovascular and psychophysiological effects, cause heart attacks, reduce performance and provoke annoyance responses and changes in social behaviour. For example, long-term exposure to traffic noise may lead to coronary heart disease and accounts for approximately 210,000 deaths in Europe each year. This not-so-silent threat is a silent killer, responsible for psychological problems, cardiovascular issues and most of all, long-term hearing impairments.

While the impact of noise on humans can be studied through the increase in medical visits, spending on sleeping pills and more, the negative effects on excessive noise on our environment are often overlooked. Other living creatures bear the burden of noise pollution in ways we as humans cannot fathom. Findings published by BBC show that loud places have resulted in birds singing at higher frequencies and difficulty in finding prey for bats and owls that depend on sound waves. Additionally, high intensity sound provokes unnatural fear, which leads to species abandoning their habitat. In time, due to various species experiencing hearing loss and the reduction of usable habitat that noisy areas may cause, endangered species are put on a quicker path to extinction. 

http://www.conserve-energy-future.com/causes-and-effects-of-noise-pollution.php

Light Pollution

As defined by the International Dark Sky Association, light pollution is “the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light.” Though light pollution may not seem as harmful as acid rain, land pollution through littering and waste, it has very real and dangerous effects on both humans and the environment. People in large cities are most vulnerable to this sort of pollution. In comparison to the past, where one could walk outside and see the Milky Way arch across the sky, today only 1 out of 4 people have experienced the wonder of pristine dark skies. This is due to the excessive artificial light that plagues almost every inch of our planet.

Earth at Night Credit: C. Mayhew & R. Simmon (NASA/GSFC), NOAA/ NGDC, DMSP Digital Archive

There are many different forms of light pollution. Here is an overview of the types of light pollution we experience most:

​•​Light trespass: This occurs when light is spilled over, falling outside the area intended to be lit. For example, when light from a streetlamp illuminates your bedroom by entering through a window. 

​•​Glare: Glare occurs when light strikes your eyes directly from the source. This visual sensation of uncontrolled brightness can be disorienting and even blinding. 

​•​Over-illumination: This is probably the most common type of light pollution. It is defined as excessive or inefficient use of lighting, such as leaving lights on when they are not being used, or illuminating areas more brightly than necessary. Over time, this becomes extremely energy intensive. In the US, over-illumination in homes, offices and public areas is responsible for the use of about two million barrels of oil every day! The energy wastage furthered by over-illumination could be partially combatted by using LED/ lightbulbs, or investing in solar power, but this wouldn’t solve the root problem of excessive and unnecessary lighting. 

​•​Light Clutter: This refers to groupings of light, especially bright or flashing ones. Light clutter can lead to confusion and cause accidents. A real life example of life clutter would be the accident that led to Princess Diana’s death, due to the flashing lights of the paparazzi and the resulting disorientation on the part of the driver. 

​•​Skyglow: This is the illumination of the night sky that appears over populated areas at night. Even though skyglow can be a natural occurrence, its most common cause today is artificial light emitting pollution which leads to a huge glow that can be seen from miles away. 

The consequences of the above-mentioned types of light pollution are many. For humans, artificial light is major cause of fatigue and insomnia, which affects daily behavior and health. Since we constantly are around artificial light in excess, our bodies don’t know when to power down, and this leads to the complete rewiring of our inner systems. In fact, using smartphones and laptops and watching TV at night is especially harmful, as the blue light these devices emit prevents our bodies from releasing melatonin, known as the sleep hormone. 

In terms of wildlife, light pollution has resulted in the death of many migratory birds, that are thrown off their typical flight path due to artificially lit skyscrapers at night. Endangered sea turtles are another example of a species affected by light pollution. When baby turtles hatch and begin their trek to the sea, they use the stars and moon to guide them to the ocean where they start their lives. But with other light sources from homes, hotels, businesses and more distracting them, the baby turtles can be tricked into traveling the wrong way, making them an easy target for predators before they even make it close to the seashore.

Both sound and light pollution, though often neglected, are detrimental to the environment and our daily lifestyles. Because these elements are so ingrained into our daily lives, we do not realise the very real threats they pose to our surroundings. Due to their somewhat intangible nature and non-immediate effects, light and sound pollution is often justified by big corporations in favour of profitability. This attitude needs to be left behind, and businesses need to balance sustainability and profitability to safeguard the future. Recognising the impact caused by these ignored detriments is integral to maintaining the environment, as well as our well-being.

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