Tag Archives: Premature Birth

A Sky Without Stars: Light Pollution & Human Health

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

The daylight hours stretch and yawn – extending themselves into the blue edges of the night. I awaken to stars and remind myself that soon they will change – my navigable position on this planet under a glittering sky. This intergenerational knowledge passed into my mind as a child is far older than anyone in my family can remember. My grandfather taught my father and they taught me. Should I ever be lost, wait for nightfall and gain orientation by listening to where the night sky tells you to go. This comfort of belonging and knowing my place in the world is the definition of solace. Cities and light pollution strip me of a knowledge so ingrained in my neurological system I can barely explain with verbal language how I know where to go. I become disoriented.

It took my first trip to the antipodes for me to understand this fully, and not for any reason related to light pollution. Instead, when I stared up into the sky, I failed to orient myself with any landmarks. Gasping for breath in the consuming sea of stars, to gain footing I required the Southern Cross. And even with this point established, it was no Polaris, not in the way I knew or expected. Over my time in New Zealand I gained orientation, at one point finding myself in a forest of glow worms with a full dark sky above. As I traveled elsewhere in the South Pacific, the Southern Cross failed as my anchor.

Having watched and photographed galaxy rises, my back against the earth as it hurdles through space, I ponder the impacts of light pollution on those with celestial navigation as a part of their blood, be it land or sea. Before city lights, for hundreds of thousands of years, humans evolved, watching the stars and orienting ourselves alongside their existences, giving their clusters names. We immortalized warriors, kings, ethical dilemmas, and the foundations of our beliefs in Super Novas, Neutron Stars, White Dwarfs and so many other identified and yet to be identified or understood dots of light filtering through our atmosphere from billions of light years away.

And now we can’t see them. Nor can our children. Nor could many of my peers during their formative years. But what impact is this having on our health?

In December, 2020, the Southern Economic Journal published the first ever study on the link between premature births and light pollution. This showed a 12.9% increased likelihood of preterm birth associated being able to only see 0.25 – 0.33 of stars visible under dark sky conditions. Skyglow, as measured by Walker’s Law (the sky-glow intensity from a light source is approximately proportional to the distance raised to the −2.5 power), has a direct impact of fetal health. Premature birth increases the risk of neonatal mortality. Premature birth of a child is closely associated with postpartum depression in mothers.

But this is not the first time researchers have raised concerns about the link between light pollution and impacts to human health. In 2011, the journal Medical Hypotheses published a review article on light pollution’s disruption of circadian rhythm potentially contributing to the rise in obesity. These impaired metabolic processes relate to circadian gene expression conserved through all mammalian species that regulate at least 10% of our genomes, including those of household pets. This article discusses the comparative obesity problems observed in domesticated animals (including horses!) living alongside humans under light pollution conditions. Going into more detail the health impacts of circadian disruption, the article mentions studies on shift work’s impacts on the release of hormones such as insulin independent of lifestyle choices by individuals. Shift work’s negative impacts on health, while linked to light pollution by exclusion of other causes, has additional epidemiological evidence to back it up. Let’s return to that question of gene expression and focus on the metabolic gene clock. Yes. That’s the actual name.

The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a review Lighting in the Home and Health this month (January 2021). Focusing on the impacts of types of lighting and its impacts on human health they concluded that though not enough studies exist at this time. Their review found suggests insufficient natural lighting increased risks for infectious diseases, injuries, and self-reported depression. While reviewing artificial lighting, they divided the data into multiple categories: fuel based lighting and electric lighting. While fuel based lighting was associated with adverse health from the toxic effects of the burning fuel (asthma, increased risk of respiratory infection, etc) and potential physical injuries, the lighting provided lower self-reported depression with even minimal usage. However, the toxic effects of the burning fuel varied greatly based on the fuel, whereas the increased infection risk remained constant among electric light users. Artificial lights were found to be associated with increased incidence of farsightedness in some children.

The strongest impacts from artificial lighting came from its use after dark, impacting sleep quality and subsequently health. The most notable health impacts from prolonged exposure to artificial light (regardless of lifestyle) at night included primarily metabolic disorders such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and dyslipidemia in elderly populations. This raises a concern: are these sensitive populations, indicating a more serious underlying issue the rest of society is experiencing?

In the 1950s the Circadian Resonance Hypothesis was proposed by Pittendrigh and Bruce and published in Nature. This stated that an organism’s overall fitness is proportional with the coupling of its internal circadian rhythms to its surrounding environment. While very few studies exist focusing on the impacts of artificial lights and light pollution on human health, many do exist focusing on the negative impacts on the ecosystem, biodiversity, and wildlife. Need I remind everyone reading this, humans do not exist in an isolated vacuum from the ecosystem and are in fact likely experiencing ill effects much like any other mammalian member, though our niches within that ecosystem may vary.

As I consider my future living in another city where light pollution drowns out the stars leading me home, I begin plotting my respite escapes for the sake of my own health. What more can I do until policies change and we find alternative solutions that let us turn down the lights?


Thanks for taking the time to read my writing! If you enjoyed this essay, please take a moment to like, share, and/or comment. It helps others find it and read the scientific articles I’ve linked.

In Memoriam: For Lillian On Her Birthday (July 9, 1925 – December 31, 2016)

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Prayer card from Lillian’s memorial service

This year I had planned to be in Savannah, Georgia at Bonaventure Cemetery spending today with you and Grandpa, preferably with my parents or one of my siblings.

You convinced me to keep writing when I wanted to give up.

You told me I could succeed.

You would have been 95 today. We celebrated our birthdays together: yours today and mine tomorrow.

At the time I thought it was weird that I didn’t have normal birthday parties. Instead, we had a big family dinner together on July 9th and then we’d do something together on July 10th. Sometimes whatever we did involved whatever children my family could scrounge together.

It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized this was a birthday party, just not the kind of birthday party most American kids have.

What I hadn’t realized was that every year you celebrated me being your birthday gift.

I was your surprise baby. Your impossible baby.


Impossible Baby

The story goes Mama was sick
Mama didn’t know I wasn’t the flu
A five month flu
Impossible flu

Two kids to chase
Two kids to follow

Too Sick, Too Tired
Mama didn’t know I wasn’t the flu

Doctor came in the room
Test Results Read
“Impossible”
She said

Ultrasound
Boy’s Name
Father and Grandfather
Dreams Come True
Finally
The fourth with their name

Grandmother’s Birthday
Too Early
Don’t Be Born
Baby — But
Mama can’t stop me
Born Just After Midnight
July Tenth
Belated Birthday Gift

But
That’s Not A Boy

No One Agrees:
Laraleigh – Laura
No,
Lo


Being born premature in 1989, my mother did not want to take baby pictures of me in an incubator where she could not hold me. She did not want to have pictures reminding her of what I looked like hooked up to a heart monitor and a ventilator with various IV bags flowing into me. She did not want to remember the hours and hours where she wandered around a hospital screaming because the nurses lost track of where they put me and forgot to tell her anything about my condition.

Seriously, you kids born premature after 1990 had way higher survival rates. One of the reasons my mom didn’t take baby pictures was because she was advised not to in case I didn’t live. That’s the sort of stuff women were told would be psychologically better for them in the 1980s. I swear my mother is one of the strongest women on this planet.

Because of this, I didn’t see a baby picture of me until I was 30 years old – this past February/March while visiting my parents. In the picture, I am almost 6 months old and my grandparents are holding me after my christening service at St. Matthews Church.

Christening

I didn’t see the photograph
Until age 30
Grandmother and Grandfather hold me
[The red brick of St. Matthew’s Church]
Smiling-
Laughing so hard
Their faces blur

The only baby picture

Mama didn’t want to remember:
Wires, tubes, monitors, screens

I don’t remember them either.


In my early twenties, I asked my grandmother for a picture of her and my grandfather for my birthday. I’m terrible at asking for anything, especially if it is something the logical part of my brain has deemed superfluous. What I didn’t expect was this.

It’s a picture of my grandmother and grandfather at Armstrong College in Savannah, Georgia. At the time, my grandfather, having just returned from World War II, was finishing up a Bachelors of Science in Meteorology. My grandmother taught chemistry. They fell in love with teaching, scientific progress, and each other.

They were the types of people that had trouble sitting still.

My grandmother was academically fascinated by her heritage. She honored her connection to the Douglas clan, but I would not call her proud. Often, she focused more on the deep connection it provided her to faith. Her expressions of spirituality changed so much even over the 27 and half years I knew her that it’s hard to say what she believed. What I can say is that she believed in showing endless love, patience, and understanding. We selected her favorite prayers and passages to include on the prayer cards.

Prayer cards from the memorial service for Lillian

What I want every person reading this to know is that though I have only spoken of a few moments, 91.5 years is a long time on this planet. Lillian danced through those years with a love of music, chemistry, objectivity, compassion, education, and love.

The last two gifts she gave me were her engagement ring and her last words.

My grandmother wanted to experience everything there was to experience on this planet. She liked to say, “Heaven Is Here On Earth.” She did not live an easy life – in fact, quite the opposite. Her life was by far full of emotional hardship.


The Last Memory

Restless loblolly pines
We sit
Dry docked green aluminum jon boat
He laughs with goofy faces
Old spice arms envelope me
Binocular eyes

“That’s the Hale Bopp Comet”
His voice is shimmering moonlight on bay water
His presence is my father’s smile

He still wears that 1970s brown and tan puffer jacket
A flare orange dog whistle on a braided leather cord
I taste fried fish tails
Bay water drains off the hull

My fathers hold me together
The child meant to be the fourth with their names
For that moment I belong

Together they point to stardust
Teach me constellations
How to find my way home
If I am ever lost at sea


My grandfather died in 1997 in the doctor’s office while getting dressed after a physical. He wasn’t feeling well and in between classes he managed to get seen. He didn’t make it to his afternoon lecture. In October, he would have been 100 years old.

She never remarried, but she was not broken. She mourned the loss of her best friend and celebrated his memory every chance she got. My grandfather loved fill-in-the-blank style Hallmark cards and writing her love poems. What I didn’t realize until I was a teenager was that she kept all of them and read his words every time she missed him.

Now, I find myself doing the same thing, even with her final words. My birthday buddy can never be replaced. I will celebrate her 150th birthday in 2075 just as I celebrate her 95th.

Terminal Lucidity

They said she’d never play piano again
Hematoma
Right side
CAT scan looks bad

We came to visit at the wrong moment
Right moment
The nurses couldn’t find the cell phone number
They wouldn’t let us in the room

We’d spoken to her that morning
We said we’d see her soon

You were out on the boat
Knee high in male bonding
Falling in love the only way
Our family knows how

We finally got you on the phone
But you never hung up

At 91 and a half
You and I argued
You insisted she was clear

We moved her to hospice
We prayed she’d tell us that we were wrong

Later that night
I sat alone with my other mother
She squeezed my hand
“I’m not ready”

She never spoke again.


As I conclude this memorial, I thank you for taking the time to be here with me. I recognize that it is not easy to be with someone in mourning. I recognize that it is increasingly unusual in America for people to grow up in a multi-generational child rearing situations where they and their siblings form these close bonds. Because of this, real family, the family that sticks by you and unconditionally loves you, will be my first priority in life for as long as I live. That’s what we were taught by our grandparents and our parents. I hope that this is a legacy my siblings and I can carry on.

With that, I close this with love to all members of my family.

“A good name is to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold” – Family Motto / Proverbs 22:1