Friday, October 24, 2014

Hesitations on the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics and its negative impact on human health – was this the aim of Nobel Prize?

This guest post was written by my colleague, Professor Abraham Haim, from The Israeli Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Chronobiology, University of Haifa. Professor Haim is also the vice chair of the Loss of the Night Network (LoNNe). The views presented here are his own. My comments regarding the Nobel decision are available here.

Recently the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics was given jointly to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura "for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources".  This is of course a huge scientific achievement and they should be congratulated for receiving this prestigious prize. Many of us in the scientific community would be delighted with being awarded the Nobel Prize and I am sure that when we carry out research, somewhere in our mind we think that maybe the results could bring us closer to this desired prize.  However, this recent award raises more fundamental questions about how the negative impacts of such research should be acknowledged and the difficulties created when such prizes disproportionately raise public awareness about their positive applications.
To the best of my knowledge the Nobel Prize foundation was established in response to the concerns of Alfred Nobel, that his inventions (notably explosives) had inevitably let to large-scale loss of life through diverse military applications.  The spirit of the prizes was therefore to reward research that supported global peace, health and other benefits related to human wellbeing. What is irritating in the decision of the committee awarding the prize to the three distinguished physical scientists is the apparent lack of awareness that LED lamps deliver energy saving at the sake of our environment and health. Exposure to blue light from LEDs has a high health risk well known in environmental literature, and scientists are looking for ways to eliminate this wavelength emission from LED bulbs. A question to be asked in regards to the committee decision is: Shouldn’t the members of such a distinguished group pay attention to environmental and health problems arising from the invention? In the case of light pollution, many of the leaders of the high profile campaign for dark skies come from the discipline of astrophysics, as in Western Europe and North America it’s difficult to observe stars. LED illumination is increasing the problem due to its intensity and the aggressive way it penetrates our lives. The potential negative medical impacts such has epigenetic modification would be recognized only after ten years or more, if I am correct. So far we have demonstrated that blue LED can suppress melatonin production and among the known sources of illumination this is the most efficient one. The neuro-hormone melatonin produced in the pineal gland during the dark phase of the 24h cycle is a “jack of all traits”, but is particularly important for our sleep, it is also an efficient anti-oxidant and anti cancer agent in regards to breast and prostate cancer. In June 2012 the American medical Association passed a resolution that light at night is a source of pollution; were the distinguish committee members not aware of this resolution?     
In our modern lifestyle most of the new electronic devices we use include LED in their screens or operation light indicator and many of these find their way into the bedrooms of young people who are exposed to this illumination during their sleep, when they need to be in the dark to produce the neuro-hormone melatonin. Looking directly to the source of LED illumination may also destroy our retina as indicated by results of studies carried out on this topic, which showed that LED illumination can result in death of retinal cells. LED technology as a source of illumination in public spaces is under discussion where those with an environmental approach would argue that we need more research in regards to smart use of this technology. Awarding a Nobel Prize at this stage is a mistake, as the unintended consequences of LED lighting are only starting to emerge. The information given here is mainly intended to help make the public aware of the danger of using LED illumination, yet there is a basic awareness of this issue within the scientific community, which should have been considered by the prize committee.  It cannot be said that “we did not know”.  I feel like the child from the story by Hans Christian Andersen, who did not pretend to admire the “new clothes of the king” and shouted “The king is naked”.                  
As has happened with past awards there is a strong risk that the integrity of the Nobel Prize may be undermined, when the large-scale negative impacts of LED lamps are realised.  In fact, surely the origin of the Nobel Prize itself points to the argument that researchers and inventors should not only seek to develop new technologies, but also to address their weaknesses and to avoid unintended consequences for society.   

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