Streetlights, breast cancer and Rubik’s Cube…

A couple of months ago, the Madison WI utility folks showed up on my street, dug some holes, brought in several shiny new poles, and next thing we knew, we had a half a dozen new streetlights – including one right outside my bedroom window.  These aren’t just any streetlights – they are the latest LED technology, and easily bright enough to read by, while consuming only a fraction of the energy of the older ones. It appears these brilliant additions use less electricity than one old-fashioned 100 watt bulb, but make those older sodium lights look like bathroom nightlights.  Signs of progress, yes? Maybe…

The lights came because my street is one of the more ‘troubled’ neighborhoods of Madison.  A lot of kids live here, most are not supervised after school or at night, and police calls are frequent.  Lighting up the neighborhood seems logical – and even biblical:  “…people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (John 3:18-20)

This new development on my street made me listen a bit more closely a couple of days ago when NPR aired a story about – talk about connecting unconnected dots – artificial lighting at night and breast cancer.  It sounds like a story out of the Onion, but no, there seems to be some solid research here:

Richard Stevens, an epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center, was one of the first to make the connection between bright, artificial light and breast cancer. Stevens’ research found that artificial light can disrupt our body clock — and affect our production of melatonin.

“We know for sure that the lighting in the modern world can disrupt our circadian rhythms, and that cannot be good,” Stevens tells Headlee.

Follow the link in the quote above and you get a bit more about Stevens’ work:

UConn researcher Richard Stevens is a cancer epidemiologist at UCONN Medical Center who studies the impact of artificial light on our health. He joined us on Where We Live five years ago, to talk about his research into the causes of a rise in breast cancer rates and said,  “About 20 years ago we started thinking about what else changes with industrialization. The lighting changes, people doing shift work, people not getting enough dark.”

And that story from five years ago cites a Lancet article with the rather phenomenal claim that

[The World Health Organization’s] cancer research agency now considers “shift work” to be a “probable human carcinogen.” This puts night workers into the same category as those exposed to toxic chemicals like PCBs.

What we have here is another example of the Rubik’s Cube problem.  Those of you who have heard me give a talk or a seminar may remember that I occasionally pull out two Rubik’s cubes to illustrate the challenges we have in trying to solve our various problems in the world today.

The Cube is hard to solve because of the fiendish way in which unintended consequences cascade through the different faces of the puzzle.  Move one corner piece into position and you discover you have displaced two others that you just put into place.  That is one way to think of the interaction of things like street lighting, shift work and breast cancer:  Put in one “good” improvement (the street light) and discover that you’ve caused problems in completely unexpected places (cancer rates).

There’s another layer to the Rubik’s Cube story, though.  In my talks I have two cubes – one is solvable, the other is not.  I’ve tampered with it by swapping just one pair of colored stickers, creating an unsolvable puzzle.  This is what our world is really like because our problems are not technical – they are spiritual.  “Environmental problems are sin problems.”  There is only one answer to sin, and it is not money, or policy, or research.

So now I look at my new streetlight with a bit more ambivalence.  Yes, it might keep the bad guys off my street – but on the other hand…

Your thoughts?