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The Fading Milky Way

 Earlier this month we spent the nights peering at the night sky hoping for cloudless nights which near the center of town and in England is a rare occasion scanning the sky for the Perseids (shooting stars) which wasn’t too successful this year! This only reminded me about how living near a town can seriously impair stargazer’s view of the night sky particularly if you live near a town or city.

The difference is always highly contrasting when you view the night sky in an area of a high concentration of light pollution which is why I decided to do a CREST project on Light Pollution. To carry this out I took observations from different locations which only highlighted what a big problem light pollution is,.  This was shown when I was able to make observations in a location away from towns.

Light Pollution can not only impair someone’s view of the night sky but some studies have shown that it can also increase your risk of developing diseases such as breast cancer. ‘Prevention’ magazine reports that a study of 1,200 Finnish women suggested that women who sleep for nine hours a night in a darkened room have less than one third the risk of developing breast cancer than those who don’t. The study even implied that a bright light trip to the bathroom even had an effect. [1]

Another researcher William Hrsushesky of the South Carolina based ‘Dorn Veterans Affairs Medical Center’ discovered that female night shift workers have up to a 50% greater risk of developing breast cancer at a certain point in their life. [2]

This is because artificial light, whether it be light pollution or several trips to the bathroom, alters the body’s production of a hormone called melatonin which regulates our ‘circadian biological clock’. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in our brain.  This tells us when we need to sleep and produce other chemicals that regulate certain things in our body.

A high exposure of light that our body isn’’t used to,  for example a large proportion of night shift, would mean that there is a low concentration of melatonin and therefore a higher risk of getting breast cancer.  Hrsushesky was able to draw these conclusions because he found that blind women have high melatonin concentrations and unusually low rates of breast cancer.  So therefore the women who aren’t exposed to great quantities of light don’t develop breast cancer as much, due to the varying concentrations of the hormone melatonin.

Of course the British weather does present its own challenges; I had to change my initial plans for my observations because of a complete lack of cloudless skies in December (2012) where we live, but this doesn’t change the fact that efforts to cut down on light pollution would have a significant effect on our enjoyment of the stars and potentially our own health.

References

1. www.britastro.org/dark_skies/health.html Accessed 26/8/13

2. environment.about.com/od/pollution/a/light_pollution.htm Accessed 26/8/13

 

 

By Claire Nicholson

 

 

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