Night-Lighting: The Controversy over LEDs Disrupting Sleep

blue-ledRecently you may have heard some buzz about LED lights interfering with sleep patterns. It’s true that excessive nighttime exposure to blue or white LED lighting can disrupt human sleep cycles, but how much of this press coverage is hype and how much is actual science?

If you have concerns about whether you’ll be exposed to legal action down the road for installing an LED fixture, or you just want to be able to explain the facts to a client who is concerned about their family’s safety, read on for an overview of both sides of the argument, and the answer to whether electricians should be worried about this issue.

Possible hazards.

In a nutshell, the concern is that excessive exposure to blue light suppresses the body’s production of melatonin, which interferes with our circadian rhythms.

(A quick word about terminology: the predominate method for producing white-light in an LED system is to use a blue LED with a yellow phosphor coating. This means white LEDs are actually on the blue spectrum, spiking around the 450-500 nm range. Because of this, many of the studies and articles on this topic use “blue” and “white” interchangeably.)

According to an article from the Harvard Medical School, a 2012 study conducted at that institution showed that exposure to light as dim as eight lux (less than an average table lamp) was enough to disrupt subjects’ circadian rhythms. Another Harvard Study in 2014 showed the same effect from the LED screens used in e-readers and similar electronic devices. But is a slightly less well-rested consumer really that big of a deal?

The issue isn’t the disturbed sleep as much as the disruption of melatonin production. Look at this quote from a January 2015 Harvard Medical School article:

“Researchers emphasize the importance of these findings, given recent evidence linking chronic suppression of melatonin secretion by nocturnal light exposure with the increased risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer.”

That clearly does not sound good. As contractors, the last thing we want to do is create a potential health hazard for our customers. So should we be tearing out LED fixtures and refusing in install any new ones? Not so fast.

Just the Fact Sheet

While the research tying nighttime light to sleep disruption is legitimate, it would be inaccurate to point to this issue as more significant than health risks associated with CFLs and incandescent lighting.

In 2014 the Department of Energy released a Fact Sheet stating:

“[T]oday’s LEDs are generally no more beneficial or dangerous to human health than other, similar light sources…”

and further:

“[LEDs] have the potential to be carefully tuned to meet the diversifying demands placed on lighting systems.”

In other words, while excessive lighting is bad, LED fixtures have the ability to be adjusted to match the proper lighting for any given time of day. This concept of ‘tuning’ is a key component of Human-Centric Lighting (HCL). A movement to help designers and consumers maximize the cost efficiency and physiological impact of household and task lighting, HCL is expected to grow in consumer awareness over the coming years.

Bedside lights and sconces, and bathroom lights—especially in bathrooms adjacent to bedrooms—should be tuned to reduce nighttime exposure to white LEDs. This means tilting towards red tinted light as the day progresses. Expect to see more LED fixtures that self-tune without requiring user input.

The Big “What If?” Is this a Legal Concern for Electricians?

If all this talk about melatonin and cancer has you worried, take a deep breath and step off the ledge. Things aren’t as gloomy as they may sound.

What’s the worst-case scenario? Well, the “Chinese Drywall” mess would seem to be a good analogy. In those cases, contractors who performed good-faith installations of a faulty product were named as defendants alongside manufacturers in large, class-action lawsuits.

However, those contractors are being pulled into the lawsuits because the homeowners are seeking immediate removal of a product that turned out to produce corrosive gas. Removal and replacement of an entire houseful of drywall is a far more involved and expensive procedure than replacing light fixtures.

In fact, light fixtures installed by electricians are only one small factor in the exposure to LED lighting. Average consumers are far more likely to be exposed to light from nighttime use of smartphones, iPads, and laptops. Tech companies make far more appealing targets to lawyers on the lookout for deep pockets.

Ultimately, any person can sue anyone for any reason. The question of liability will be up to the courts to decide. But with the increased awareness of HCL, the DOE Fact Sheet, and the prevalence of tech companies with deeper pockets, electrical contractors aren’t likely targets for litigation. As long as work is performed in accordance with the local codes and manufacturer’s specifications, electricians should have nothing to worry about.

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to talk with customers and direct them to information about HCL, and the advantages of LEDs for customized tuning. Your customers will sleep better with less nighttime exposure, and you’ll sleep better knowing you did the right thing.

With over a decade of construction experience, Dan Stout writes articles that help demystify the industry for both contractors and customers. Visit him at




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