Dark-sky advocates seek to illuminate
Protecting humans and the night from light pollution, group helps county set standards

By Gregg MacDonald
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, December 10, 2009

They don't have antennae, but they walk among us with a vast knowledge of the constellations and astronomy -- and they are very sensitive to light.

They are members of the International Dark-Sky Association, and they have been influencing outdoor lighting policy in Fairfax County for years.

Fairfax Station resident Bob Parks, 53, is managing director of the association's new Office of Public Policy and Government Affairs, which opened this year in downtown Washington. The association has more than 300 members in the D.C. area, about a third of whom live and work in Fairfax County, he said.

Founded in Tucson in 1988, the nonprofit association has about 5,000 members nationwide. Its mission is to protect night skies and natural starlight by educating individuals, private industry and government bodies about the effects of light pollution and "unfocused light emissions."

According to the association's Web site, the ever-brightening night is directly linked to measurable negative effects on human health and immune function, on adverse behavioral changes in insect and animal populations, and on a decrease of ambient quality and safety in nighttime environment.

Most notably, the association suggests that overabundant light at night may interfere with normal circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycle of day and night that humans have used to maintain health and regulate their activities for thousands of years.

"Our message is simple," Parks said. "We want to create dialogues as to the negative effects of light pollution. We think there is scientific research that needs to be done on this. We also think there are certain common-sense 'best light practices' that can be implemented in the meantime."

Best light practices, Parks said, are those that cause the least light pollution, such as streetlights with shielded fixtures that aim light downward without unnecessary glare shooting outward or upward into the night sky, obscuring natural starlight.

"The International Dark-Sky Association has certainly had a significant impact on lighting decisions in the county," county Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said.

In 2003, with the association's help, Fairfax passed outdoor lighting standards as part of a zoning ordinance. The ordinance's stipulations aim to reduce the effect of "glare, light trespass and overlighting" countywide.

"We have some active people in this community that are part of Dark Sky," Hudgins said. "We also have an ongoing committee that works on lighting issues with Dark Sky members on it, and members who also helped us with issues that were part of the 2003 ordinance."

Christopher Walker, 64, is a commercial real estate developer who has worked in Reston since 1982. He is an active member of the association and is on its board of directors.

The county should be commended for its willingness to implement responsible lighting practices, Walker said.

"Ms. Hudgins has been well educated about light pollution over the years, and she has become an advocate of best lighting practices," he said. "Of course, any ordinance is only as good as its enforcement."

Walker has been vocal on the issues, Hudgins said. "Chris will certainly let us know, in no uncertain terms, if he is displeased with any of our lighting practices."

Many measures can be adopted to "use light more effectively," Parks said. "One good rule of thumb is that if you can see the bulb, then there is too much glare."

Streetlight glare is a growing problem with older drivers, whose eyes are ill equipped to deal with it, Parks said. Streetlights also have had an impact on the breeding habits and birthrates of bats, he said.

"They are fooled into thinking it is still daylight, so they go out to feed later and have less time to feed," he said. "The glitch in their biological clock can have a trickledown effect on all their other functions. Fewer bats mean more insects, or the reverse can also be true. Bats can begin to exclusively feed off of insects attracted to lights, unnaturally diminishing the population of certain moths, for example."

Walker said darkness is as necessary a component for optimal health as natural sunlight.

"The healthiest way to live is to sleep in complete darkness and have access to sunlight during the day," he said. "Light pollution hurts everything, including property values. There are direct correlations of property values to the use of discreet versus overabundant lighting."

The association's members "can be very convincing in their arguments," Hudgins said.

"They really do have a point," Hudgins said. "You don't really know what you're missing until you go out to the country or somewhere where you can really see the stars, and then you go, 'Wow, so that's what I'm being denied by light pollution.' "

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