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A Darker Future for Czech Republic

The nation is the first in the world to ban excessive outdoor lighting. Jan Hollan is leading the fight to implement the law.

August 10, 2003|Susanna Loof | Associated Press Writer

BRNO, Czech Republic — Jan Hollan is fighting for a darker future for the Czech Republic.

The astronomer is helping lead the campaign to implement a law that made this formerly communist country the world's first nation to ban excessive outdoor lighting -- an intrusion of the modern age that Hollan and others say disturbs wildlife, poses a menace to people and spoils the simple pleasure of stargazing.

Anti-light pollution measures are on the books in several U.S. states, parts of Australia and in the Italian region of Lombardy. But the Czech legislation, adopted in 2001, is the first nationwide law banning light pollution, said David Crawford, executive director of the International Dark-Sky Assn., a nonprofit group based in Tucson, Ariz.

"That's important both for the country itself, and as a model for other places," Crawford said. "We must preserve the night environment for so many reasons, and this law helps us do that."

The night sky above Brno, a city of 400,000 people about 125 miles southeast of Prague, has become so bright that only experts using telescopes can see traces of the Milky Way, said Hollan, who is an astronomer at the Nicholas Copernicus Observatory and Planetarium here.

In the early 1990s, any visitor could easily spot that sprawl of stars, Hollan said. He hopes the Milky Way will reappear in a decade if Czech lawmakers fine-tune the law with rules requiring that new or replacement lamps be of designs that don't emit light upward or sideways.

The 2001 law only ordered that light pollution be reduced, without setting any specifics on how that should be done.

New rules pending before parliament would require that street lamps and other lighting systems be dimmed overnight and that lamps illuminating signs and buildings be weak and targeted. The rules also would ban "sky beamers" -- lamps that emit pillars of light into the sky -- and require that lamps near protected nature areas be shielded.

Some rules, such as the sky-beamer ban, would take effect as soon as they are passed. Other requirements would be phased in. Czech cities would be free to enact stricter rules and impose penalties.

In addition to making the night sky's starry expanse visible again, the changes would be good for humans and wildlife, Hollan said.

Sky beamers often attract birds that end up flying in endless circles around the ray, he said.

And regular street lamps attract insects from 450 to 750 yards away, while stronger lights attract insects from up to 2 miles away. That means lights near nature reserves "suck -- like vacuum cleaners -- all the insects out," Hollan said.

For humans, light pollution means sleeping problems, and glaring lamps can cause traffic accidents because they blind drivers, Hollan said.

Two 2001 studies found that women working overnight shifts -- and hence exposed to less darkness -- had higher rates of breast cancer than others.

Darkness is required for the body to produce the hormone melatonin, and researchers say that when melatonin secretion drops, estrogen levels tend to rise. Increased estrogen levels have been linked to breast cancer.

"Not having darkness at night is really dangerous, and it's harmful to our health," Hollan said.

Hollan, 47, who regularly uses the word "stupid" to describe outdoor lamps and considers most lighting "horrible overkill," advocates weaker and better-targeted lamps to reduce light pollution. And it will cut electricity use, he adds.

"It can be solved very, very quickly and it is easy to do, just taking care," he said. "The savings are quite large. When there is some political will, it can be done."

At least eight U.S. states -- Arizona, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Maine, New Mexico, Texas and Vermont -- have regulations aimed at restricting light pollution. In April, American astronomy groups banded together to promote the first National Dark-Sky Week.

During an evening walk through Brno, Hollan pointed to streets lighted by nonpolluting lamps. Only the lamps closest to the viewer were visible, a result of the lamps' shields and flat lenses.

Elsewhere, glaring lamps created bright, blinding dots visible into the far distance. Their light made it hard to discern anything but the lamps. Such lamps usually have curved lenses that spread light in several directions as well as covers that let light go upward and sideways.

On one shopping street, picturesque, drop-shaped lamps on ornamental poles took on a new appearance at night: Their glaring lights blinded passersby so much that it was hard to see the street itself.

"The architects like them because of their daytime appearance, but they cause so much harm," Hollan said.

Pointing to a church bathed in light, he argued that a focused light beam highlighting a single sculpture on a wall would be a more effective way to attract attention. "It's nonsense to use so much light that the building looks the same as in the day," he said.

Hollan takes a pragmatic approach to his quest, realizing that most people find more light better than less. But he sees fighting light pollution as a duty.

"I've got an education, so I should use it for the benefit of society," he said. "And this is what I am doing."

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