Concerns about blue light prompt Lawrence City Commission to re-evaluate streetlights

A non-LED streetlight, left, stands in the 1600 block of Matthew Terrace, and an LED streetlight, right, stands in the 1600 block of Lindenwood Lane.

The last word on the color and safety of Lawrence’s new streetlights is yet to be had at City Hall.

At their meeting Tuesday, commissioners pre-empted a report from city staff recommending the city not pursue changes to the color temperature of the LED bulbs. Commissioners said they are getting a lot of emails from residents about the streetlights and that more discussion is needed.

“We’re blessed with a wonderful scientific community in our town, and we’re hearing from them,” Vice Mayor Stuart Boley said. “Let’s put it on the agenda.”

Westar Energy is changing the city’s streetlights to a type of high-efficiency LED — white with unseen blue light — that some towns have begun avoiding for environmental and health reasons. The city has also elected to use the same type of bulbs in its lighting. Some studies have shown that nighttime exposure to blue light is unhealthy, and residents have raised concerns about the quantity of blue light emitted by the new LED bulbs.

Commissioner Mike Amyx brought up the topic before the city staff recommendation regarding streetlights was scheduled to be presented. Amyx said staff had done a good job laying out the reasons why Westar Energy believes its decision is the right one, but that he thinks the commission should make the call.

“One of the things I’ve wondered is, should the commission hear this item as an agenda item and make a decision one way or another on where we are?” Amyx said. “And I believe, quite honestly, we should.”

Other commissioners agreed and said that they think they need to hear from all sides on the matter. Commissioners directed staff to put the issue on a future agenda for the commission to decide.

“I went through some of the paperwork that was presented and it’s amazing some of the conflicts in the science,” said Commissioner Lisa Larsen, a retired environmental geologist. “So I think it warrants further discussion, I really do.”

A local group, the Lawrence Alliance for Responsible Lighting, has requested Lawrence pass an ordinance requiring that outdoor lights have softer colors and shielding to direct the light downwards. Westar Energy is in charge of the majority of the city’s streetlights, and officials have said their choice of LED bulb is the industry standard and the safest option for visibility.

City Manager Tom Markus said that staff is fine with putting the topic on a future commission agenda. Markus said he would like to invite Westar as part of that discussion, and asked for some time to get information together.

“If you have as much of the facts as you can possibly get before you make a decision and then you make a decision, I’m perfectly content with that, whether I agree with the decision or not,” Markus said. “I just want to make sure you have as much information as you can get for you to make an informed decision.”

The LEDs being installed by Westar and the city have a color temperature of 4,000 kelvins. The Lawrence Alliance for Responsible Lighting has pointed to a recommendation from the American Medical Association that specifically warns against light with a color temperature higher than 3,000 kelvins because it can disrupt human sleep and disorient some animal species. Prairie Village recently decided to go with 3,000 K lights because of the AMA recommendation. Critics note that the AMA recommendation doesn’t indicate how much blue light is harmful.

Boley and Larsen asked the city to reach out to the AMA, Prairie Village and include more information about studies city staff cited in their decision. Amyx also asked that information about the city’s franchise agreement with Westar be included.

“What are the responsibilities that they have to us and vice versa?” Amyx said.

A date was not set for the meeting to discuss the city’s streetlights, but Markus said it would come before the commission before the end of January.