Energy Saved, Sleep Lost: The Unintended Consequences of LED Lighting

In the early 90s, I remember dozens of Radio Shack trips with my dad. We were always making little hobby projects, and we’d refill on red, yellow and green LEDs. One day, I asked him why there were no blue LEDs for sale. My favorite color was blue, and I wanted to use it in our projects.

My Dad and I in 1988.

When I asked my dad about it, he told me that blue LED lights were available, but they were very expensive.

“How expensive?”

“Somewhere between $10-$40 USD for a single blue LED.” Compare that to 10 cents for a red, yellow or green one.

I was disappointed. That price point was far above budget for our hobby projects. Why were these lights so expensive?

Blue light is very energy intensive, and red, yellow and green light operate at lower energy levels. For a long time, those colors were feasible to produce at scale, but blue LEDs were stubborn holdouts.

My dad and I had a bet on when the blue LED “breakthrough” might happen, after which we’d be able to buy blue LEDs for the same price as the other colors. I was excited at the notion of an expensive LED getting cheaper, and didn’t understand then how higher energy light might affect us as humans.

Pictured: Blue, red and green LED lights. PiccoloNamek on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The breakthrough for blue LEDs occured in the early 1990s, and the democratization and process for creating affordable blue LEDs won its inventors a Nobel Prize. Because red, green and blue LEDs are required to make white LED light, the breakthrough made it possible for an era of smaller, more portable technologies, from thin LED TV screens to the displays in laptops and mobile devices. It allowed us to introduce energy efficient LED bulbs into our homes and public spaces — a boon for power conservation. In 2015, “roughly 90% of all large-scale sporting venue operators that installed new lighting systems opted for LED lighting systems”, saving teams across the United States millions of dollars in costs.

The widespread use of high-energy visible (HEV) light may have mighty ambitions, but its ubiquity has enormous, unintended, and unforeseen consequences on human health, well-being, and culture.

The Public Costs of Blue Light

Via Treehugger

HEV light is not just in the blue light in our screens. It’s rapidly encroaching upon every aspect of our daily lives.Many cities are embracing the new energy savings of LED bulbs by swapping out warmer spectrum street lights for high energy LED lights. While these bulbs might require less power, they also lack the cozy, more human quality of the former lights. And instead of being able to sleep easily at night, people in homes with bedroom windows facing street lights get a dose of HEV at the worst time in the 24 hour cycle. This is a compounded concern for impoverished individuals, who might not have the means to black out their living quarters, or must work multiple jobs and cannot afford any disruption to sleep.

Credit: UK Independent

In some cases, blue light is literally degrading our shared artistic heritage. As LED lighting gains prominence in art galleries and museums, our experience of viewing art is changing. Even worse, a Belgian study found that LED lights were bleaching paintings by Van Gogh and Cézanne. What can we do?

Social Solutions to Blue Light

Blue-light blocking mobile screen protector via Health-E

We can’t easily call for our cities to go back to a less intense light. The switch has already been made, and cash-strapped cities need the savings. But there are solutions. We can work with companies like Health-E and their Eyesafe technologies to add blue-light filters to everyday objects, LED lights and VR headsets. These advanced filters can filter out the dangerous parts of the spectrum while maintaining the energy savings — and our eyes’ health.

Although we’ve made incredible advances in how we make technologies, we still have to remember that they can exert negative human effects. Efficiency is not everything. And harming our sleep in favor of energy savings might actually end up not saving us much energy in the long run: We may end up with a population that works less efficiently, has increased issues with anxiety and exhaustion, and suffers from growing insomnia. We must already deal with exacerbated health issues and associated costs due to Daylight Savings Time, the spread of blue light can only build on those effects.

We should definitely encourage galleries and other public institutions to implement filtering solutions to preserve our eyes and our cultural heritage. For similar reasons, we should at least advocate for filtered lighting in heavily trafficked, highly communal spaces — or in special situations, revert to older, warmer illumination.

Personal Solutions to Blue Light

As previously noted, tech companies are starting to recognize the larger blue light problem, but haven’t yet fully fixed it. “Smart” refrigerators have become a new culprit, since many of them boast a touchscreen with bright blue display; consider a small “drape” or other cover to put over the screen, so it doesn’t blast you into insomnia, whenever you go into the kitchen for a late night glass of water.

Audit your house for blue light LEDs and screens. Chances are your entertainment system, smart home devices and other connected technology have blue LEDs and other bright indicators. You can cover existing indicators with tape, cloth, or 3M putty.

From The Verge

If you’re responsible for building products, give indicators a “night mode” with different colored LEDs or panels, and integrate spectrum filtering covers right into the screens themselves. I have a beautiful air filter that emits a bright blue glow all night. Thankfully, I can turn the device to “night mode”, though I can never set it permanently, or change the color.

Via the New York Times

Eliminating Junk Sleep

We’re human beings. We need places to decompress, reflect, and get cozy. Homes are for relaxing, and shouldn’t be a mirror of our work environments.

If you don’t have access to filters, incandescents, or window shades, consider wearing blue-blocking glasses such as those produced by TrueDark to block out HEV light an hour before bedtime. These lenses have reduced my insomnia by an average of an hour a night every time I’ve worn them.

TrueDark’s SleepHacking Glasses

Since energy efficient LED bulbs also tend to emit problematic levels of blue light, consider replacing them with beautiful Edison bulbs, or other human-friendly bulbs which minimize blue. (NYT has some good recent guides or better home lighting.)

I’d love to see a future where LEDs are everywhere, but filtered. Until then, we need more awareness around the problems with the blue LED that we already have.

Do you have problems with bright blue light in your house? How do you solve it? I’d love to hear more about personal solutions to eye fatigue and HEV light at home, work, and during transit.

This post is part of a series of posts about blue light:

Why Blue Light Is So Bad: The Science — And Some Solutions

Why the Color of Technology Must Change