New Streetlights in New Eastside

The Chicago Smart Lighting Project, an initiative of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Infrastructure Trust (CIT), aims to replace nearly all the city’s 290,000 “amber” streetlights with “white” energy-efficient LED lights over the next four years. The change will affect all “orange” streetlights in the New Eastside and will be one of the largest installations in the world.

“It’s going to change the dynamics of Chicago,” said Lakeshore East resident Todd Guynn. “The LED lighting can be very harsh.”

The city began “test” installations of streetlights last year. Several people in the impacted neighborhoods have voiced concerns about the light they give off, which reminds them of “strip malls” and a “Greyhound bus station.” The city declined to comment on when or where the “test lights” are, only saying about 1 percent of the 270,000 light fixtures have been replaced. (In total, currently 4,100 of the city’s 317,900 light fixtures use LEDs.)

Research from the American Medical Association indicates that large amounts of blue light can cause “discomfort” and insomnia, finding that “white LED lamps have five times greater impact on circadian sleep rhythms than conventional street lamps.” The research also says that “blue-rich LED streetlights operate at a wavelength that...adversely suppresses melatonin during night.”

“When you return to your apartment after being exposed to all this high-energy blue, you’re likely to have trouble sleeping,” says Dr. Stuart Richer, OD, a practicing 35-year optometrist and human physiologist at the James Lovell Healthcare Facility in North Chicago. “This is a very, very important public health issue. We’re potentially putting in streetlights disruptive to the retina and human physiology.”

The new lights, which will be funded by outside investors, will slash the city’s electricity bills by at least half, and will provide “more reliable and improved nighttime visibility, giving communities a greater sense of safety,” according to the mayor’s office. Stretches of orange lights currently ring the New Eastside, radiating out from Lakeshore East Park, which uses low-intensity LED lights, according to Chicago Department of Transportation spokesperson Mike Claffey.

A spectrum of LED lights are available on the market, including 4000 Kelvin (K) lights, whose high levels of short-wavelength blue light can possibly cause retinal damage. “In my opinion, the best thing to do would be to put in a streetlight that mimicked the spectrum of natural candlelight but was energy efficient, such as sodium vapor 2700K or tungsten-halogen 3200K,” says Richer.

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