VOL. 41 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 11, 2017
Don’t let permanent eye damage be your eclipse souvenir
By Hollie Deese
It’s quite possible Dr. Ming Wang has never been quite so nervous about the collective eye health of so many people from one singular event.
But with the August 21 total solar eclipse set to sweep Middle Tennessee, he urges people to be prepared, get educated and be safe.
The message: Never look directly at the sun during a solar eclipse. Looking directly at the sun can cause permanent damage to your eyes. The result could be solar retinopathy, sometimes referred to as “eclipse blindness.’’
“I’m really getting nervous about the situation right now,” Wang says. “Because Nashville is (the) largest city on this pathway, we’re going to have the most number of people watching. So with solar retinopathy, it’s going to be potentially most devastating to Nashville.”
Damage can be irreversible
The symptoms of solar eye damage – solar retinopathy – typically occur within a few minutes or hours of exposure, and include watery eyes, sore eyes, light sensitivity, a blind spot in the center of vision, things appearing unusually colored, distorted and blurry, and with lack of details.
Wang says damage is transient, and can resolve in 3-4 weeks. But sometimes partial sight loss can be permanent. He saw more cases of it in his training, but not so much in recent years because the injuries are rare, and the last solar eclipse to cross the U.S. was so long ago.
Regular sunglasses do not offer sufficient sun radiation protection because they are designed for you to look indirectly at sun rays reflected off surfaces, such as the road while you are driving. They are not designed for looking directly at the sun.
Wang admits he has been astounded by some patients’ lack of knowledge, some telling him they plan on just looking at the eclipse with the naked eye or regular sunglasses. Most distressing to him are the people who tell him they plan on recording it with their smart phones.
“The problem with the iPhone is that it actually concentrates and intensifies light,” Wang explains. “When you look at a dark corner of your house, it’s pretty dark. But when you look through your iPhone, it looks brighter, because, the iPhone has an artificial mechanism of amplifying the incoming light. It makes it stronger.”
Of course, the problem with that is that while it makes it easier to take pictures of the eclipse, the sun rays through the lens will actually be stronger than with the naked eye.
“You can actually accelerate solar retinopathy,” Wang adds. “You can burn the sensitive retina faster than with your naked eye. So the problem is people will be staring at their iPhone recording the entire eclipse.”
A solar filter is required to protect the camera from being damaged or destroyed.
“I think it’s so important, because much of the solar retinopathy is irreversible and untreatable,” Wang adds. “If you point your camera to a very extremely scorching bright light source for a long period of time it’s going to burn a hole in the middle of the film. And that’s what the layman description is of solar retinopathy. So when people look at things, life long, when they look at things afterward, they can’t see in the middle.”
Children highly susceptible
Wang is most worried about young people staring at the sun before and after the eclipse, and it is for their safety that Metro Nashville Public Schools students will have to go to school during the event, a reverse from their initial day off at the request of Mayor Megan Barry.
Barry says she feels strongly that young students could encounter safety issues if left home without supervision on that day. The MNPS Board of Education voted to have school during the eclipse instead.
UPDATE: The Metro School Board decided this week to close schools on Aug. 21 citing expected high absenteeism among teachers and staff.
“The critical characteristics of these injuries is that these patients normally, were not aware that one could actually have these conditions. So it was completely an innocent mistake,” Wang explains. “And the few that I have seen in my career are young people. They just go out and play. So they stare at the sun throughout the entire time of the eclipse. That results in essential retina burn.”
The Wang Vision Institute is hosting a free seminar Aug. 17 at 6:30 p.m. in which Wang will give out a complimentary pair of solar glasses and explain the proper way of using them.
For example, you have to put the glasses on first, while you’re facing away from the sun, then turn your head toward the sun while you’re wearing them. You should only look for a few seconds at a time, and take multiple “safety breaks” throughout the eclipse.
“What you don’t want is to create a new generation of people who have a central blind spot, solar retinopathy, as the outcome of this event,” Wang says. “This is a once-in-a- lifetime spectacular opportunity to watch this spectacular phenomenon of nature. But we’ve got to do it right.”
Wang also adds to keep pets away from exposure to the solar eclipse altogether.
Derrick Rohl, planetarium manager for the Adventure Science Museum, offers this experience is so special it is important to make the effort for your children to see it, and solar glasses properly used make it perfectly safe.
“You can look up, and you can see that present sun as the eclipse progresses,” Rohl explains. “Now if you’re outside the path of totality you just keep those glasses on the whole time. If you’re in the path of totality you can take those glasses off only during the totality because you don’t see the surface of the sun.
“We’re trying to make sure that that word gets out. We don’t want to say, ‘No, no, no, hide the kids.” We want to say, ‘Here’s what you can do, it is possible to view an eclipse safely. In fact, it’s one of the greatest things you’ll ever see.’”
Now if you happen to be in your car when the eclipse begins, Dean Flener with TEMA wants to remind drivers that solar glasses cannot be worn behind the wheel.
“You cannot see through those glasses,” Flener notes. “Those glasses are rated so that you could look directly at the sun and it not destroy your eyes or blind you, which means they are very, very dark, even in daylight.”