January 26, 2015

Commentary | February 25, 2013
Fluorescence and the death of shadows
On the inhumanity of our interior spaces
Written by | Visual by Akanksa Chaubal

Fluorescent lighting creates spaces devoid of humanity. Everywhere, we coexist under fluorescent lights and have become accustomed to entering and exiting cold, bleak, and desolate buildings. Fluorescent light removes shadows and deprives us of our depth perception; it detaches us from our surroundings. Our three-dimensional reality is transposed into a two-dimensional dreamworld.

We are alienated by the fluorescence that lights our institution. The phase out of incandescent light bulbs has consequences wider than the empty arguments repeated in the defense of institutional efficiency. This is not just an issue of personal preference: this is the stark reality of how our emotional well-being and our physiologies are bound up with the physical processes of producing light.

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Between 1938 and 1941, General Electric patented and sold the first commercial fluorescent bulbs. Their prevalence can be traced back to World War II, when wartime efficiency required productivity on a new scale. More recently, lighting has again become a political issue. Countries like Brazil, Russia, and Canada are phasing incandescent bulbs by banning their production and purchase. In our opinion, this is abhorrent.

Light is created in fluorescent bulbs by exciting highly toxic mercury vapor. Fluorescent bulbs, unlike the sun and incandescent bulbs, often cast a diffuse light. Rooms lit by fluorescence are devoid of shadow, destroying our ability to perceive depth. Diffuse light also reduces the contrast of everything around us, which causes everything to blend together. How could this not be disorienting? Our shadows are integrally connected to earthly existence – without them, we are only a projection.

Mercury, also known as quicksilver – that metallic substance which used to be found in old thermometers – is highly toxic; exposure damages the brain, kidney, and lungs, causing sensory impairment and lack of coordination. The amount of mercury in fluorescent bulbs is significant – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that rooms should be evacuated for at least 15 minutes if a fluorescent bulb breaks.

Compared to inert, non-toxic incandescent bulbs, which work by heating a filament wire, fluorescent bulbs are much harder to dispose of. They are considered hazardous household waste and require a specific recycling facility to prevent the toxic heavy metals from polluting the environment. While, technically, fluorescent bulbs are more ‘efficient’ at converting electricity into light, the environmental rhetoric surrounding the calls for switching to fluorescent bulbs is moot – especially in Quebec, where we heat our homes for a large proportion of the year. In other words, in cold climates, the heat from incandescent bulbs is not wasted. The sentiment behind switching to the more energy efficient fluorescent bulbs is a band-aid solution in a system that is fundamentally flawed – environmental change will only come from massive shifts in lifestyle. Is dehumanizing our collective spaces worth the minimal ‘efficiency’ gains?

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Certainly there is science that justifies our hatred of fluorescent lights. However, this is not a problem of numbers. For us, this is about interpersonal interaction, this is about being conscious of your self, and feeling grounded in your environment.

Ultra-lit spaces prioritize the visual; our other senses, which we use to connect with each other are left on the sidelines. Professor Conor Sampson, who teaches lighting design in the School of Architecture, described incandescent bulbs as essentially balls of fire. Like the sun, the bulbs emit a broad spectrum of light giving a richer perception of the colours around us. On the other hand, fluorescent lights have a narrow spectrum which turns purples into greys, and blankets everything with melancholia.

McGill rigidly defines the kind of lighting that can be used in its buildings: standardized environments cannot take into account that individuals have varying reactions to their surroundings. Those who just can’t deal with fluorescent light have no place to go; we are pushed into dark corners of the institution. There are alternative solutions that exist – task lighting, for instance, provides individualized and appropriate illumination depending on the task and the space. In libraries, this would take the form of reading lamps, giving people the autonomy to control their own environment. There are many rooms at McGill with an abundance of natural light – why disregard the life-giving potential of this by flicking on the overheads?

What we lose through fluorescent lighting is an ability to navigate through darkness – our perception of other people becomes centred around image. We lose the ability to relate with each other through our non-visual senses. Direct, natural light allows us to experience each other fully, as human beings, not just as bodies in an institution.

Farid Rener and Jacqueline Brandon are News and Commentary editors at The Daily. They wrote this by candlelight and the opinions expressed here are their own. Reach them at farid.rener@mail.mcgill.ca and jacqueline.brandon@mail.mcgill.ca.

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