Dim view of life's bright lights

Pollution: In Towson and elsewhere, there's a growing movement against "light pollution" that can make night look like day.

September 17, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

It's just a small patch of grass between the Toys `R' Us parking lot and Putty Hill Avenue, but it glows in the night like the outfield at Camden Yards.

"You think that's bright enough?" asks Gretchen Sarkin, pointing above the green strip toward a pole with about 4,000 watts worth of light bulbs. "You see spots. You can read your watch it's so bright."

The lights in the Towson Place parking lot - described as the aurora borealis of Baltimore County by one government official - have brought complaints from Sarkin and her Loch Raven Village neighbors since the shopping center was renovated a couple of years ago. The debate has helped to sweep the county into a growing nationwide movement against "light pollution."

In Texas, transportation officials are removing lights from highway signs to darken the skies for better stargazing. Coastline communities in Florida have scaled back lighting to protect disoriented sea turtle hatchlings. Governments in Maryland and beyond are replacing street and highway lights with models that no longer light the heavens but reduce glare and cut electric bills.

"It's an issue whose time, if it's not right here, is going to be here real soon," says Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery County Democrat and amateur astronomer who plans to grill state officials on their lighting strategies during General Assembly budget hearings. "People are going to come away with significant determination to change things."

In Towson, where officials have fielded complaints for years about car dealerships and shopping centers that turn night into something approximating day, county planners are assembling a task force to determine how bright is too bright. The panel - the product of a County Council resolution that was prompted by concerns over the lighting at Towson Place - is to establish guidelines to prevent light in new commercial and residential developments from spilling onto neighboring homes.

"The bottom line is, we need to develop and have the requirements so this lighting can be toned down around the perimeters," says Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, the county director of planning.

"If you doubt the need to curb light pollution in greater Baltimore, drive north on Interstate 83 toward Pennsylvania, then turn around and look south toward the city.

"It looks," he says, "like the thing's been hit by a nuclear strike."

The problem has been building nationwide for decades, says Bob Gent, spokesman for the nonprofit International Dark-Sky Association, which advocates practices that curb light pollution.

"The more people spread out and go everywhere, the more they want light," Gent says. "We're afraid of the dark."

Among the first to complain were astronomers, backyard amateurs and professionals in observatories built far, but ultimately not far enough, from cities. When the lights in suburbia obscure the Milky Way, a natural resource as real and valuable as any wildlife sanctuary is lost, they say.

"The sky is almost like an endangered species," says Jim O'Leary, director of the Davis Planetarium at the Maryland Science Center. "We should work to protect it."

That's part of the reason that Texas, under its "dark skies law," is moving away from lighted highway signs to ones that can be read by reflections from headlights.

Not only stargazers suffer from too much light, light-pollution opponents say. A Canadian organization, Fatal Light Awareness Program, helps migratory birds, which sometimes are hurt or killed when they confuse skyscraper lights and beacons on towers with constellations that help guide their travels.

Confusing turtles

In Florida, dozens of municipalities have enacted laws modifying lighting near coastlines to help save three protected species of sea turtles, says Kristen Nelson, an environmental specialist for the state's Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Lights along the coast not only deter turtles from coming ashore to lay eggs, she says, but also confuse hatchlings.

The young turtles instinctively head for light, usually the moon over the ocean horizon. But sometimes they are lured away from the sea by streetlights. Headed inland, they die of thirst, are eaten by predators or run over by cars.

Light can affect humans in surprising ways. Studies of animals have suggested that sleeping in a room lighted by a nearby streetlight might increase the risk of breast cancer by disrupting the production of melatonin, a hormone that might boost immunity as it regulates sleep.

The movement against light pollution started slowly, but in the past 10 to 20 years it has picked up, leading to hundreds of lighting ordinances throughout the country, Dark-Sky officials say. A big reason is that government officials are won over when they learn that they save on energy costs with the latest technology.

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