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Tuesday, June 2, 2015, 09:03

Shedding a little light on the virtue of darkness

By Sylvia Chang

HK might be the brightest city of the world, but the constant exposure to illuminated billboards, store signs and LED displays could disrupt the natural rhythm of the body and cause serious health hazards. A report by Sylvia Chang.

Shedding a little light on the virtue of darkness
Shedding a little light on the virtue of darkness

The past five months have been a waking nightmare for Sylvia Lee. She can’t sleep. The lights across the street drive her crazy; those bright blue spears of fluorescent light stabbing 25 storeys from ground to rooftop — suggesting the image of a jet airplane thrusting for the stratosphere.

A Wan Chai resident for the last 30 years, Lee’s suffering began ever since the lights were installed five months ago. Now she lies awake in bed all night, trying to cope with the glare from the illumination.

“When I turn off the lights in my bedroom, the lights from the building pierce through my curtain and shine right onto my bed. They keep running until 4 am. It makes me dizzy and distressed,” said Sylvia Lee.

The distress Lee is experiencing is more than a mere nuisance. It poses serious health risks. Sleep deprivation can become a source of depression, distraction and confusion.

Research by Tse Lap-ah, associate professor at the Jockey Club School of Public Health and Primary Care at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, returned even more troubling findings. Tse found that women who spend as few as 500 nights working on a “graveyard shift” are at risk of breast cancer at a rate 13 percent higher than women working normal hours. “An obvious effect on the risk of breast cancer would appear if the person continues to do night shift for more than 15 years,” Tse warned.

“Light at night can disturb the human day-night rhythms and result in circadian disruption, leading to the disordering of other functions of the human body: heart rate, metabolism and body temperature,” said Tse who has been conducting research on occupational and environmental health for more than 10 years.

The magical images of Hong Kong’s breathtaking night skyline, seen around the world, seem less beautiful to those for whom the unremitting light is a plague that undermines health and peace of mind. Sylvia Lee is tired to the point of distraction as she goes about her chores of toilsome housework and taking care of kids day after day.

“At night the human brain secretes a hormone called melatonin, which plays a significant role in regulating circadian rhythm,” said Tse, explaining that Sylvia Lee’s distress may be caused by circadian disruption.

“If a person is exposed to light at night, the secretion of melatonin, which normally reaches its peak between 2 and 3 am, is suppressed, leading to the resetting of the circadian rhythm,” said Tse.

From bulbs to LED screens

Studies reveal that the circadian rhythm of the human body that peaks and ebbs in sync with the rise and setting of the sun is unbreakable, even among those who have worked “the graveyard shift” for many years.

Sylvia Lee’s neighbors in the building also complain their lives are being disrupted by intense light from across the street. They complain about the increased heat and the murkiness of the air around the lights.

Government documents show about 200 complaints concerning light nuisance have been filed every year over the past five years. More than a decade ago fewer than 15 complaints would be received annually. Typically, the maximum number of complaints is filed by residents of Wan Chai and Yau Tsim Mong, both with heavy residential development standing amid a concentration of commercial and entertainment buildings.

Jacqueline Chung, a Wan Chai district councilor, noted the evolution of billboards over the years. Eight years ago most billboards were made of canvass with no illumination. Then came the era of two rows of intense lights, on top and bottom of billboards. In the last three years, glaring LED screens have proliferated.

While years ago complaints would be more about the sweltering heat caused by the lights of large billboards, nowadays it is the physical hazards posed by the glare of blinding, swirling light arrays that annoy people the most. Chung said some are annoyed by the heat generated in the immediate vicinity, complaining that their air conditioners burn out after a few years.

Chung recalled a resident suffering epileptic seizures set off by rapidly-spinning lights outside her window. “You could see lights shining and spinning in her room after all the lights were turned off inside. In the end she had to see a doctor and finally moved away from the district.”

In another case, one apartment resident found it necessary to wear sunglasses in her kitchen. The room was under constant illumination from a shop sign facing the room.

Like Chung, Kenny Lee, another Wan Chai district councilor, said she had done all she could to settle complaints about light pollution. At first she tried to persuade owners of billboards or shop signs to switch off the lights at midnight. “It was not effective. A few weeks later they turned the lights back on again,” Lee said.

Kenny Lee said she sometimes would pay owners of light displays one or two thousand Hong Kong dollars to settle a complaint. “But that’s not enough. Some owners require more. They say that turning off lights interrupts their businesses,” Kenny Lee added.

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