Medical professionals in the Columbia area urge everyone excited about Monday’s solar eclipse take be vigilant about protecting your eyes.
Their concern comes amid shortening supplies of protective eye wear and a fear that many people are confused about how to properly use eclipse glasses during the three-hour event.
“Looking directly at the sun can be very harmful to the eyes under any circumstances, but especially during the eclipse,” said Dr. Mark Robinson, an ophthalmologist at the University of South Carolina and Palmetto Health.
Normally, it’s difficult to stare at the sun longer than a few seconds, but the eclipse lessens its intensity and makes it easier, said Dr Lisa Niven, an optometrist with USC-Palmetto Health.
“It becomes more comfortable to look at the sun and normal protective mechanisms like blinking and tearing lessen,” she said.
Ordinary sunglasses aren’t sufficient to assure eye safety from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, even during the eclipse, doctors said.
Even a brief glimpse at the sun using glasses without the right filters can cause blurs, distortion, lost contrast and blind spots that could be permanent, eye specialists warn.
Any damage would be painless and could show up immediately or after several hours, they say.
“The consequences can be serious,” said Dr. Jeffrey Gross, who specializes in retinal care. “Just like a magnifier can focus the sun’s rays to burn a hole in a piece of paper, the rays can burn the retina.”
The caution comes as many people continue searching for eclipse glasses. The Richland County Library gave away 9,000 pairs on Friday and has no more left. Most organizers of the 120 viewing events this weekend are providing free eye wear for attendees along with instruction on when to put them on and remove them.
In Blythewood, however, the local Chamber of Commerce earlier this week recalled the thousands of pairs of glasses it handed out because the manufacturer was not one of the companies that had been certified by NASA. The glasses had been distributed to outlets primarily around Blythewood and Northeast Richland.
Richland County, which ordered 10,000 glasses with the county logo on them, said earlier this week it would not recall the glasses even though they were not manufactured by one of the NASA certified companies. County officials said the glasses “meet a standard of safety spelled out” by the American Astronomical Society.
Stores such as Lowe’s home improvement centers, Target, Wal-Mart and some supermarkets are selling glasses, although supplies vary and some outlets may be sold out.
Even with the proper eye wear, it’s best to glance briefly during the eclipse instead of intensely for long periods, Niven said.
Eye care specialists are especially concerned about getting the safety message to families with children. Making sure children keep glasses on will be a challenge, doctors said.
"Since there is no way to ensure children will keep their eyes adequately protected, the safest way to view the eclipse for younger children is indirectly,” said Dr. Caroline Webber of Lexington Pediatric Practice.
She suggested children watch a televised version or rely on a “pinhole camera” outdoors that displays the eclipse without looking at the sun. Such “cameras” direct the sun's light onto the ground through a tiny hole in a piece of paper so the progress of the eclipse can be watched indirectly.
People watching the eclipse inside buildings also need to put on eclipse glasses when watching the sun no matter how heavily tinted the windows are, Gross and Niven said.
Working outside should be fine as long as you don’t look at the sun, both said.
Using a vehicle’s visor to block the sun while on the road should be sufficient while driving, although the darkening sky and returning brightness may disorient motorists, doctors said.
But driving with eclipse glasses is unsafe because they are too dark, officials said. “You will feel like you are blindfolded,” Gross said.
If in doubt about eye wear, stay inside and watch a broadcast version of the eclipse, Niven said.
For all the warnings, doctors worry enthusiasm to see the rare natural phenomenon – the first to cross the United States from coast to coast in 99 years – will lead some Midlands residents to risk vision damage.
“The retina is like the film or digital chip in the back of a camera,” Gross said. “If the film or chip has a scratch or burn, changing the lens will not improve the picture.”
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483
University of South Carolina-Palmetto health eye doctors provide these tips for watching the eclipse:
▪ Homemade filters and ordinary sunglasses, even very dark ones, are not safe. Use special-purpose solar filters, such as eclipse glasses or hand-held solar viewers, to view the eclipse. Recommendations may be found at websites for NASA and the American Astronomical Society.
▪ Any damage to the lens on eye wear, binoculars or cameras, including scratches, can make the equipment unsafe for use.
▪ Looking at the sun any time during the eclipse without protective glasses is unsafe, except during the brief time the moon completely blocks it.
▪ Even with appropriate glasses, don’t look at the sun more than a few seconds.
▪ During the eclipse, stand still and cover your eyes with eclipse glasses before looking at the sun. After glancing, turn away and remove your eye wear. Don’t remove while looking at the sun.
▪ Only remove glasses when the moon completely covers the sun, a period of about 2 minutes and 30 seconds. As soon as the sun begins to reappear, put them on again.
The American Astronomical Society is advising people to make sure their eclipse glasses are from reputable manufacturers instead of only looking for safety/certification language that includes the ISO with reference number 12312-2.
Here are the manufacturers recognized by NASA and AAS as safe to purchase glasses from:
- American Paper Optics (Eclipser)
- APM Telescopes (Sunfilter Glasses)
- Baader Planetarium (AstroSolar Silver/Gold Film)
- Celestron (EclipSmart Glasses & Viewers)
- DayStar (Solar Glasses)
- Explore Scientific (Solar Eclipse Sun Catcher Glasses)
- Lunt Solar Systems (SUNsafe SUNglasses)
- Meade Instruments (EclipseView Glasses & Viewers)
- Rainbow Symphony (Eclipse Shades)
- Seymour Solar (Helios Glasses)
- Solar Eclipse International / Cangnan County Qiwei Craft Co.* (plastic glasses only)
- Thousand Oaks Optical (Silver-Black Polymer & SolarLite)
- TSE 17 (Solar Filter Foil)