The Medical Minute: Blinded by the light

June 18, 2003

Protecting your eyes from the hazards of the workplace and the playing field is just the beginning

By Harvey Fracht, M.D.
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

With summer fast approaching and long, sun-filled days on tap, a vitally important but often overlooked topic begs discussion. Our vision is so central in our lives that we usually take it for granted. However, our eyes are amongst our most fragile organs. They need proper protection from the hazards of the environment, the sports arena, the workplace and other elements of everyday life.

However, one of the greatest threats to your eyes is invisible. The scientific evidence is piling up: long-term exposure to invisible ultraviolet radiation can damage our eyes and lead to vision loss. Everyone - including children - is at risk.

Wearing sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats can protect eyes from the sun's harmful rays. Like your skin, your eyes never forget ultraviolet exposure. Studies show that exposure to bright sunlight may increase the risk of developing cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, both leading causes of vision loss among older adults. Ultraviolet exposure, wind and dust can also cause pterygia, benign growths on the eye's surface. The more exposure to bright light, the greater the chance of developing these eye conditions.

In addition to the damage caused by a lifetime of exposure to bright sun, you need to protect your eyes from acute damage caused by single outings on very bright days. Excessive exposure to ultraviolet light reflected off sand, snow or pavement can damage the cornea, the eye's surface. Similar to sunburn of your skin, corneal ultraviolet injuries are painful, although they usually heal quickly.

Here's how to ensure your eyes are protected from the sun: select sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays. Don't be deceived by color or cost. The ability to block ultraviolet light is not dependent on the darkness of the lens or the price tag. Ideally, your sunglasses should wrap all the way around to your temples, so the sun's rays can't enter from the side. Choose sunglasses that absorb a maximum of "ultraviolet-A, and ultraviolet-B rays" to minimize your risk. Seek the opinion of your optician to help guide you to the best choice in sunglasses for you. In addition to your sunglasses, wear a broad-rimmed hat to protect your eyes. Don't be fooled by a cloudy day. The sun's rays can pass through the haze and thin clouds.

Even if you wear contacts with UV protection, remember your sunglasses to protect the rest of your eye. It's especially important to wear sunglasses in the early afternoon, when ultraviolet light is most intense, and in higher altitudes where UV light is more intense.
Furthermore, remember never to look straight into the sun or an eclipse, even if wearing conventional ultraviolet absorbing eye protection. They can cause irreversible eye damage.

Of course, protecting your eyesight isn't limited to sun safety. When engaged in athletics or other activities with any risk of eye trauma, make sure to use safety eyewear recommended for that sport (i.e.: squash, hockey, shooting). These glasses are usually made of very strong polycarbonate plastic. The thickness of the lenses and design of the frames vary depending on the nature of the activity.

Despite existing safety legislation and educational programs, each working day in the United States, more than 2,000 employees sustain job-related eye injuries, making workplace injury a leading cause of ocular trauma, visual loss and blindness. Of these, 10 to 20 percent will be disabling because of temporary or permanent vision loss.

Ninety percent of these injuries can be prevented with appropriate protective eyewear. Many of those injured workers reported that they didn't think they needed to wear eye protection or were wearing eyewear inappropriate for the job. As a rule, protective eyewear must have "ANSI Z87.1" marked on the frame or lens.

Lastly, when filling a standard spectacle prescription for everyday wear (not to be confused with eye protection used for sport or dangerous work-place conditions), consider asking for the lenses to be dispensed in polycarbonate safety lenses. The "minimum central thickness" should be 1.5 millimeters. This will add an extra level of safety from completely unexpected trauma, such as happens during automobile accidents. Although these lenses scratch more easily and cost more than conventional lenses, they are worth the extra ounce of prevention.

To learn more about protective eyewear for your lifestyle, hobbies and occupation, see your eye doctor or eye care professional. You can also learn more by logging on to the Penn State Ophthalmology Health Information website at http://www.hmc.psu.edu/ophthalmology/healthinfo/index.htm.

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Information adapted, with permission, from the American Academy of Ophthalmology

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Last Updated March 19, 2009