The Forgotten Pollution

by Matthew Sleeth

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

Street light at twilight.

Light pollution: hidden in plain sight. (cc image courtesy loop_oh via flickr)

As an emergency room physician, I often worked 24-hour shifts. Emergency room doctors are not alone—today nearly one-fifth of the world population works in shifts.

Our regular patterns of waking and sleeping—called circadian rhythms—are fundamental to mental and physical well being. A lack of regular sleep and rest is not conducive to a healthy home life, or a healthy body. Hypertension, peptic ulcer disease, cardiovascular mortality, higher incidences of work-related accidents and car accidents, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and higher divorce rates are more common in shift workers. Life expectancy for shift workers is reduced by as much as four years.

The artificial light required to keep up these unnatural patterns also harms wildlife. When we disrupt God’s natural rhythm of light and dark, the migration, reproduction, and feeding of life on earth is affected. Along the coasts, sea turtles have a harder time finding darkened beaches for nesting. Frogs and toads living near highways, artificially made as much as a million times brighter than normal, have their nighttime breeding songs thrown out of kilter. Whole flocks of winged creatures exhaust themselves trying to escape the maze of city lights.

Is our 24-hour productivity quota really worth the toll?

By short-circuiting our sensitivity to God’s patterns of light and dark, we are blindly experimenting with human health as well as the health of every living creature on earth. But here’s the good news: Of all the forms of pollution facing the world today, light pollution is probably the most easily fixed.

Simple changes in lighting design and installation translate into immediate reductions in the amount of light we pour

Branches against stars in the night sky.

What is your view of the night sky missing? (cc image courtesy John 'K' via flickr)

out into the atmosphere. As a bonus, these changes also save us energy. Hundreds of communities throughout the US now use covered street fixtures that light only the ground below, rather than wastefully shining in all directions. At home, porch lights that are tucked into ceilings and outdoor motion detectors can ensure safety while reducing waste.

Light pollution (and air pollution in general) interferes with stargazing. But something else often gets in the way: we are often so worn out from our busy schedules that we don’t take time to connect with the natural world. Slow down. Shut off the TV, close the laptop, and linger outdoors in the evenings for a change. Switch off the porch lights, spread a blanket on the lawn, and try to count the stars, just as Abraham did. As you gaze upward, you cannot help but be filled with humility and wonder at God’s creation.

J. Matthew Sleeth, MD, a former emergency room director and chief of medical staff, now writes, preaches, and teaches full-time about faith and the environment. He is the author of Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action and The Gospel According to the Earth: Why the Good Book is a Green Book. With his wife, Nancy, and their two children, he helps lead the growing creation care movement. The Sleeths live in Wilmore, Kentucky. Visit them online at

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The Paradox of Energy Efficiency — Flourish
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