Light pollution: The true costs

December 14, 2018 3:37 pm

Last month, LIFE Arċipelagu Garnija held a seminar together with Alternattiva Demokratika Żgħażagħ (ADŻ) and the Light Pollution Awareness Group (LPAG) on the topic of light pollution in the Maltese Islands. The seminar featured talks from invited speakers on the many issues of light pollution, with a focus on the effects of light pollution on the Maltese populations Scopoli’s Shearwater, Yelkouan Shearwater and Mediterranean Storm-petrel.

Representatives from major stakeholders including the PA, Transport Malta and ERA were in attendance. A short question and answer session raised some interesting points for future studies and the potential for future collaboration with government entities capable of effecting change. During this session, a question was raised that we feel important to address. How are we to motivate the population to combat light pollution? The LIFE Arċipelagu Garnija project is working to mitigate the effects of light pollution across the Maltese Islands and strives to raise awareness to the light-induced stranding of shearwaters and petrels. As a result of our efforts, this year we received more calls than ever from the public stranded birds. Despite this achievement, we acknowledge that we must spread the message further.

As a conservation NGO, BirdLife Malta works to protect the natural environment. However, the issue of light pollution extends further than its effects on the natural world.

Artificial light at night (ALAN) has been shown to be detrimental to human health. The bright lights that illuminate our towns and villages, our sportsgrounds, monuments and churches disrupt the natural cycle of our body – the circadian rhythm. Circadian misalignment can have a suite of negative effects on our psychological wellbeing, our cardiovascular health and metabolic functions; contributing to an increased prevalence in poor mental health, heart disease and obesity. Perhaps most worryingly, high levels of exposure to ALAN in the form of both outdoor and indoor lighting are a risk factor for both breast cancer and prostate cancers (Cho et al. 2015, DeSantis et al. 2015).

The effects of light pollution on human health are likely to be felt particularly strongly in Malta. Recently ranked as the 17th most-light polluted country by population with 89% of the Maltese population now living under skies so polluted that the Milky Way is no longer visible. Although no studies have investigated the effects of light pollution on human health in Malta specifically, a trend can be seen in some troubling national statistics. Malta is the most obese nation in Europe, with 26% of adults in Malta classified as obese. Prevalence of breast cancer and is increasing annually in Malta (Attard et al. 2015). Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death. Of course, the numerous factors that contribute to these diseases must be taken into consideration; however, in light of the growing base of scientific evidence identifying light pollution as a risk factor for all of these preventable diseases, we must start taking light pollution seriously.

The financial cost of light pollution is also a cause for concern. An estimated $6.9 billion is wasted as a result of excessive lighting and poorly designed lighting schemes in the USA alone (Gallaway et al. 2010), approximately $20 per capita. This figure is likely higher for Malta, a country a fraction a size of the USA but where a greater percentage of people live with higher levels of light pollution.

Fortunately, tackling light pollution can be as easy as flicking a switch! The benefits are instantaneous. To arrive at this point we must first ask ourselves how we benefit by needlessly and wastefully illuminating structures over night when no-one is around to see them. We must ask ourselves why we choose damaging LED lighting when financially viable and more benign LED alternatives exist. We must ask why, when energy efficiency is increased as a result of switching to LEDs, the money saved is spent on even more lighting for the area than before. Increasing levels illumination are seen as a sign of progress, but at what cost? We risk losing our natural heritage, we risk jeopardising our health and we pay for the privilege. We cannot ignore the costs of light pollution any longer. Conservative estimates predict that light pollution is increasing by 5%-10% annually in Europe, before long we will all be living underneath a polluted night sky.

BirdLife Malta’s LIFE Arċipelagu Garnija is working together with various stakeholders to mitigate the effects of light pollution across the Maltese Islands, focusing on areas identified as stranding hotspots for threatened seabird species. Many of these hotspots are densely populated urban areas. Reducing light pollution at these locations would benefit not just our shearwater populations but our country as a whole. We urge everyone to take a stand against light pollution and demand change.

BirdLife Malta would like to thank all those who attended the seminar with particular thanks to the Anna Fava of the ADŻ for organizing the event, and Ryan Vella and Alexei Pace for their talks!

By James Crymble, LIFE Arċipelagu Garnija Project Warden



Attard, J., Dalmas, M., & England, K. (2016). An update in breast cancer epidemiology and healthcare services in Malta.

Cho, Y., Ryu, S. H., Lee, B. R., Kim, K. H., Lee, E., & Choi, J. (2015). Effects of artificial light at night on human health: A literature review of observational and experimental studies applied to exposure assessment. Chronobiology international32(9), 1294-1310.

DeSantis, C. E., Bray, F., Ferlay, J., Lortet-Tieulent, J., Anderson, B. O., & Jemal, A. (2015). International variation in female breast cancer incidence and mortality rates. Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Biomarkers.

Gallaway, T., Olsen, R. N., & Mitchell, D. M. (2010). The economics of global light pollution. Ecological economics, 69(3), 658-665.