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MeadWestvaco's Halo

Light pollution or just MeadWestvaco's angelic glow?

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The new MeadWestvaco headquarters on Fifth Street sure is angelic looking — it has a halo of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, encircling its roof. But the halo may create new deviltry in the form of light pollution, according to some environmentalists.

A movement toward eliminating light pollution, the dark-sky movement, has aligned itself with the sustainability movement. Green-building incentive programs, such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, known by the initials LEED, give points to projects that minimize light pollution.

MeadWestvaco's decorative fixture sends light outward, illuminating thin air, essentially wasted. The light was disqualified from earning points toward LEED designations, although finding other ways to reduce light pollution was a concern, says David Waln, an architect on the project. A spokeswoman for the company says it will light the halo only for holidays and special events.

The dark-sky movement argues that light pollution affects everything from public safety — lights meant to catch criminals are so bright they can create a blackout zone behind them — to public health. An August 2007 article by  David Owen in The New Yorker quoted a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center who hypothesized a connection between “cancer and the ‘circadian disruption’ of hormones caused by artificial lighting.”

Domingo Gonzalez, an architectural lighting designer in New York City, has been consulting with the Fan District Association on its attempts to add more street lights to the area.

“On Grace Street, our approach to the dark-sky movement has been to use a luminaire — or light fixture — which is full cutoff,” he says, “which means that the light is driven downward and no light goes out above horizontal.”

Gonzalez says that although Richmond doesn't yet have a dark-sky-sensitive mandate, “you can look at the horizon and see it coming,” he says. “For example, there's all kinds of legislation in this country saying we're going to ban incandescent lamps. One of our recommendations is to relamp all porch lights with CFCs. It could be here sooner than we think. We want to plan strategically.”

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