Apr 25, 2017

Broadening our knowledge base—not simplistic headlines—will move the ball forward

By James Brodrick

Blue light has been in the news a lot lately—specifically, the portion of the visible spectrum that falls between 450 and 530 nanometers. Light within that range can have powerful effects on our visual acuity and circadian rhythm, as well as on the growth of plants, the behavior of animals and the darkness of the night sky. White light sources that emit significantly in this blue range are becoming increasingly prevalent for outdoor use, especially with the emergence of solid-state lighting (SSL)—which, in comparison to high-pressure sodium and other incumbent technologies, offers such advantages as increased energy efficiency, improved color rendering and greater optical control. But questions are being raised about possible adverse effects on our health and the environment from increased blue content of these light sources.

The answers to those questions, however, are not nearly as simple as the news stories would suggest, and some journalists, as well as other non-lighting specialists, have drawn conclusions that aren’t supported by the facts as science knows them. While science has made significant advances in understanding the physiological effects of light, it has really only begun to scratch the surface, which is why there’s a great deal of related research that’s either ongoing or in the planning stages. The goal of that research is to fill gaps in our knowledge, so that we can make better decisions about the use of light.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently facilitated a series of roundtable meetings with experts to determine just where some of those knowledge gaps lie.

These research initiatives illustrate an important point that’s been overlooked in many recent news stories: namely, that because of its directionality, controllability and spectral tunability, SSL—far from being the villain some of those stories have implied—is actually better suited than any other lighting technology to minimize potential negative effects of lighting on people and the environment, and to optimize the beneficial effects.

What we know to date about the effects of lighting on humans, animals and plants is incomplete and forms a picture that’s nuanced and complex. And nuance and complexity don’t lend themselves well to news sound bites. Let’s not forget that when it comes to science, it’s the scientists who actually make the news—which, for accuracy’s sake, needs to be reported carefully and on their terms. If it’s not, and instead is prematurely packaged into neat and tidy headlines and sound bites that distort what the scientists are really saying, it ceases being news and becomes merely another form of entertainment. Lighting affects each and every one of us—not only in ways we take for granted, but in ways we’re only just now beginning to understand. As always, we need to keep the health and wellbeing of humans and other living things carefully in mind. But we also need to make sure that in selecting the most appropriate course of action, we aren’t throwing out the baby with the bathwater.


James Brodrick

James Brodrick

James Brodrick is the manager of the U.S. Department of Energy Lighting program, directing solicitations, portfolio management, strategic planning, and quality performance. Drawing on extensive technical knowledge, Dr. Brodrick has designed a comprehensive DOE national strategy... More info »