How I used fake sun to beat the winter blues

The Local's northern Sweden reporter Paul Connolly, has strapped on his sunglasses and paid a visit to an Umeå sun room, in an effort to combat the region's long, dark winter.

How I used fake sun to beat the winter blues
Sunglasses photo: Shutterstock
As much as I love northern Sweden, the mid November to late January period can be rather dark. At this time of year the sun hauls itself above the horizon at around 9am, describes a low arc across the tops of trees, and then slinks away as if exhausted by the effort at around 2pm.
During years when we’re lucky enough to have early snowfall, this isn’t too dispiriting, as the snow brightens up the whole landscape and reflects back and intensifies any available light. In recent years, however, the snow has been reluctant to show itself until just before Christmas. Climate change is making our lives appreciably darker up here.
A lack of daylight causes the body to produce melatonin, a substance that makes us sleepy and lethargic instead of serotonin and cortisol, substances that make us feel bright and alert. Too much melatonin can lead to depression. 
So, how have the northern Swedes combated this? Many make sure they’re out in nature whenever they have a spare second. Randy, my neighbour, spends time most weekends ice-skating along the frozen edges of our lake, while others are out chopping wood or building and burning bonfires. The northern Swedes need little excuse to get out and about.
But what about those of us who are office or factory-bound and have young children to attend to at the weekends? From where do we get our splash of daylight in mid-winter?
Light or sun rooms are the salvation of pasty-faced office moles. There are several dotted around northern Sweden and we’ve visited one in our nearest big town – the solrummet at Iksu spa in Umeå. Sun rooms offer brightness that is about 10 times stronger than standard light therapy. The Iksu sun room is large, with around 16 sun loungers and a smattering of tables and chairs. You’re advised to bring your sunglasses, swimwear or sundress and a book. The sun room’s "sun" is identical to the real sun but has 60 percent less UV radiation. You can spend an hour a day in the "sun,” although Iksu suggest an initial exposure of only 20-30 minutes.
Once you overcome the strangeness of lolling about in this large artificially lit room with a few strangers, it’s quite a pleasant experience. The “sun” warms your face and you almost feel the rays coursing through your veins awakening the dormant stores of serotonin and cortisol. Oddly enough, though, this new surge of serotonin didn’t make me feel revived instantly. Instead I drifted off a little as the sound system’s ocean waves CD lulled me into a snooze. My girlfriend soon nudged me awake with a hiss familiar from our holidays in Turkey and the Caribbean – “Ssshh, you’re snoring really loudly!” The Swedes around me hardly looked bothered, though, as most of them had also started snoozing.
A few days later, I’m not sure I feel that much benefit, although I haven’t ever really suffered any adverse effects from our dark period up north, so it’s hard for me to tell. Also, I suspect you need to visit a sun room regularly to really reap the rewards of all those UV-A and UV-B rays. 
One change is noticeable, however – I have a faint light patch round my eyes where I was wearing sunglasses in the sun room. My neighbours have been looking at me curiously during our encounters as if they can tell if something’s different about me but they’re just not sure what. Next time, I’ll leave the sunglasses at home.

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Swedish city Umeå has Europe’s cleanest air

Umeå in northeast Sweden, has been named as having the cleanest air in Europe, according to a new report by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Swedish city Umeå has Europe's cleanest air
Umeå city centre, home to Europe's cleanest air. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

The EEA published The European city air quality viewer, an interactive tool showing the air pollution levels in 323 cities in Europe. Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk according to the EEA. 

“This city air quality viewer allows citizens to see for themselves in an easy-to-use way how their city is doing compared to others on air pollution. It provides concrete and local information which can empower citizens towards their local authorities to address the issues,” says Hans Bruyninckx, the executive director of the EEA.

The cleanest air out of all these cities can be found in northern Sweden, in the city of Umeå, which has a level of 3,7 micrograms of fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, per cubic metre of air.

The EEA’s classification of air quality defines four levels of air quality: “good”, “moderate”, “poor” and “very poor”, with “good air” defined as having under 10 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter.

Only 127 out of the 323 cities in Europe are found to pass the limit of “good air” set by both the EU and the WHO.

All of the Swedish cities included in the study – Uppsala, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo as well as Umeå, had “good air” according to the report. Uppsala ranked 6th out of the 323 countries tested, while Stockholm ranked 9th, Gothenburg 23rd and Malmö 93rd. 

Second and third in the EEA’s ranking are Tammerfors in Finland and Funchal in Portugal.

 “Very poor air” was defined as over 25 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air and five cities on the index are considered to meet  this standard. Worst of all were Nowy Sacz in Poland, where 27.3 micrograms of particles were found per cubic meter of air, Cremona in Italy and Slavonski Brod in Croatia. 

Despite a reduction in emissions during the Covid-19 pandemic, the remaining 196 countries were all found to have above acceptable levels of air pollution. While lower levels of commuting have led to a decrease in levels of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere, levels of particulate matter have remained stagnant.

The EEA’s experts said that emissions of particulate matter are the result of many different processes, including combustion of fuel for heating of homes, industry, and agriculture.

“White air quality has improved markedly over the past years, air pollution remains stubbornly high in many cities across Europe,” says Bruyninckx.

Last year, an EEA report found that Europe’s air has gotten cleaner in the last decade, but that the bad air caused 417 000 premature deaths across 41 countries in 2018 alone.

A similar study in The Lancet Planetary Health earlier this year found that air pollution causes around 200 000 premature deaths per year in Europe. They stated that if the pollution was lowered across Europe to below the limit of 10 micrograms per cubic meters, the levels recommended by the WHO, around 52 000 deaths could be avoided each year.