Light’s dark side: How light pollution affects western Massachusetts 

  • James Lowenthal, at Pulaski Park in Northampton on Wednesday, June 5, 2019, thinks the glare from lights is a problem that can be addressed. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College astronomy professor James Lowenthal, in downtown Northampton on Wednesday, is working to curb light pollution in Northampton through his role as the Massachusetts chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A view from Main Street in Northampton Monday night. Some residents have raised concerned about light pollution in the city. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lights along a pathway in Pulaski Park in Northampton on Monday night. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer 
Published: 6/11/2019 5:01:37 PM

Ten years ago, Smith College astronomy professor James Lowenthal would go to the roof of his building on campus. He would look up and see the Milky Way.

Today, that is no longer the case.

“Now you can just barely make out the faintest glimmer of the Milky Way,” he said. “I have to take my students to Cummington, or Chesterfield, or Worthington to see the Milky Way — to see anything approaching a dark sky.”

Sitting downtown in Pulaski Park on a recent evening, Lowenthal said, “100 years ago we could be sitting here and see a spectacular starry sky — dark velvet black with bright Milky Way. Bit by bit, that’s been completely eroded until you can’t see hardly anything.”

The Northampton resident and others believe light pollution is to be blamed for this phenomenon, and the issue has implications that go far beyond seeing the stars better.

Lowenthal is president of the Massachusetts chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association​​​​, which calls light pollution “the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light.” The nonprofit is focused on curbing light pollution worldwide.

Its state chapter supports a bill that would address the issue in Massachusetts by setting limits to publicly-funded outdoor lighting projects, and Lowenthal and others have been pushing for changes on the local level.

Skies above 99 percent of people in the U.S. and Europe and 80 percent of the world’s population are light polluted, according to a 2016 study published in Science Advances. Eighty percent of North Americans can’t see the Milky Way. And the earth is only getting brighter. From 2012 to 2016, artificial lighting grew by 2.2 percent annually across the globe.

Health implications

Beyond diminishing the visibility of celestial bodies for stargazers and astronomers, light pollution has a variety of other impacts.

Northampton resident Jenny Fleming-Ives has been working as a clinician in reproductive health for 30 years and worries about the health impacts of light pollution.

For example, Harvard researchers in 2017 found an association between outdoor light at night and breast cancer, possibly because the light can decrease melatonin levels. They published their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives, a monthly journal of environmental health research and news published with support from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Fleming-Ives thinks many people don’t realize light pollution is an issue. “A lot of people maybehaven’t thought about it that much,” she said.

She often tells people the lights on Bridge Street in Northampton are too bright and cause glare, and after a person drives there at night, they come back and say: “Oh yeah, I saw what you mean.”

Sleep can be affected by light pollution, too. One analysis found that people in light polluted areas take higher doses of sleep medication and for longer than those in less bright areas.

Janet Gross has been living on Round Hill Road in Northampton for 11 years. Several years ago, a light went up on a developing property near her house and ended up streaming into her bedroom.

“Finally,” she said, “they were turned off and we realized how much better we slept.”

Gross had one streetlight outside her house shielded by making a request to the city, she said. The city’s website says shields can be installed upon residents request on a case-by-case basis. Officials have put in many so far, said Christopher Mason, Northampton’s energy and sustainability officer.

Too bright

In Northampton, Lowenthal takes issue with the lights. Standing downtown near City Hall on a recent evening, he said, “The lights are too bright, they’re too blue and they’re unshielded.”

Glare can be created when lights are not shielded, he said.

Several years ago, the city began shifting its streetlights to LEDs, which are more energy efficient. “We reduced our electrical use for streetlights by about 70 percent,” Mason said. “It’s enormous.”

The city put out sample lights before changing all of them. “We had complaints both ways — they’re not light enough and they’re too bright,” Mason said.

More people said they were too bright, so Mason said officials decreased their brightness.

The American Medical Association recommends outdoor street lighting to be 3000 Kelvin, a measure of the lights hue, or less and that they are shielded to prevent glare.

The AMA estimates white LED streetlights have five times more of an effect on circadian rhythm, the body’s natural 24-hour clock, than traditional ones.

Mason said streetlights in the city are 3000 Kelvin, just within the AMA’s recommendations. In Pulaski Park though, lights are 4000 Kelvin, according to Mason.

Lowenthal worries about the pollinating insects, which are in decline around the world. Plants in the Pulaski Park are meant to attract them, but research published in the journal Nature in 2017 found that artificial lights deterred pollinators from visiting plants.

Due to concern about the health of people, animals and a starry sky, Northampton City Lights, a group Lowenthal and Fleming-Ives are involved in, has been advocating for the formation of an Outdoor Lighting Committee in the city.

Statewide, legislation that aims to lessen light pollution has been filed and is cosigned by Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

The act would require improving outdoor lighting and increasing dark-sky visibility starting next summer. It calls for any outdoor lighting paid for by state or municipal funds be under specific limits for brightness and blueness. It would also require that new roadway and parking lot lights are shielded.

Lowenthal is pushing for it to pass. “As an astronomer, I’m acutely aware of it,” he said of light pollution. “But much bigger than that, everybody in the world is affected by it.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at

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