Don’t think a solar eclipse can cause eye damage or even blindness? Neither did Lou Tomososki. But it did.
During a partial solar eclipse in 1962, Tomososki was walking home from school with a friend when they spotted the moon sliding over the sun during the eclipse. They’d heard the warnings in school from a science teacher: “Do not look directly at the partial solar eclipse!” But, being teenagers, Tomososki and his friend figured that peeking at the eclipse for only a couple of seconds couldn’t hurt. Right?
Tomososki’s first indication of a problem was while watching the eclipse; he saw flashes of light before his eyes. He didn’t worry though. The flashes were so similar to a camera flashbulb’s that he didn’t think it was any big deal. But Tomososki later confirmed that he and his friend were both burned at the same time and both, to this day, have permanent eye damage.
“We were just doing it [watching] for a short time,” he said. “I have a little blind spot in the center of my right eye.”
Types of eye damage from watching an eclipse include loss of central vision (solar retinopathy), distorted vision, and altered color vision.
PREVENT BLINDNESS (preventblindness.org), a highly respected resource for eye health professionals, is sounding the warning about looking directly at an eclipse, partial or otherwise. In an article entitled “Solar Eclipse and Your Eyes,” Prevent Blindness (PB) explains how our eyes are adversely affected by looking at a solar eclipse.
“Exposing your eyes to the sun without proper eye protection during a solar eclipse can cause ‘eclipse blindness’ or retinal burns, also known as solar retinopathy. This exposure to the light can cause damage or even destroy cells in the retina (the back of the eye) that transmit what you see to the brain.”
The article warns that eye damage can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to appear.
Many people who’ve glimpsed at an eclipse may think they’ve dodged a bullet if they don’t experience symptoms immediately.
Other people may not realize they’ve damaged their sight because eclipse-related eye injuries occur without pain. Nevertheless, eye damage, including blindness, can be permanent.
But it’s not just gazing up at the sky that can cause permanent damage. PB warns about other ways not to watch a solar eclipse.
Do not use a Smartphone: Think about it: We all have to line up a pic when we take a photo with any camera, including a phone. What we need to take seriously is that even those few seconds when we take a peek at the eclipse to frame the shot is enough time to do the damage. And it’s enough time to damage your phone as well.
Do not use a camera viewfinder: The optical viewfinder on a camera is no protection for your eyes, either. Why? It’s just glass. And it has nothing on that glass to protect your eyes from the rays coming through it. The fact is that looking at an eclipse through a viewfinder is essentially the exact same thing as staring at the eclipse, and it can cause the same kind of damage to your eyes.
Do not use unsafe filters: Many—too many—people think that some kind of filter will shield them from the dangerous sunrays. Not so. PB says that “…unless specifically designed for viewing a solar eclipse, no filter is safe to use with any optical device (telescopes, binoculars, etc). All color film, black-and-white film that contains no silver, photographic negatives with images on them (x-rays and snapshots), smoked glass, sunglasses (single or multiple pairs), photographic neutral density filters and polarizing filters are unsafe filters to watch a solar eclipse. Also, solar filters designed for eyepieces that come with inexpensive telescopes are also unsafe. All of these items can increase your risk of damaging your eyes.”
In addition to the PB warnings, use common sense.
Do not rely on sunglasses. Note above that sunglasses are not deemed proper gear for viewing an eclipse; they simply cannot filter out the concentration of damaging rays that an eclipse throws down. And wearing more than one pair of sunglasses is not going to help, either. (That would be like wearing two pairs of socks when you go swimming instead of one because you don’t want your feet to get wet. It’s still not going to work.)
Do not look out of a window. Sunlight is, obviously, not deterred by windows. Unlike wind, rain, sleet or snow, simply being on the other side of the glass is not going to protect your eyes from the damage done by looking directly at an eclipse.
Do not forget your pets. Our pets’ eyes are as susceptible as ours to the damage caused by looking directly at a solar eclipse. Since we can’t tell them that, probably the wisest course of action is simply to keep them indoors.
Do not forget to warn and/or supervise your children. Experts say that children are at even greater risk of eye damage because protective barriers in their retinas are not yet fully formed. Make certain that children and teens understand all of the risks involved in watching a solar eclipse, specifically that they cannot rely on phones and/or sunglasses for protection.
For more information on how to watch an eclipse with any degree of safety, visit preventblindness.org for a comprehensive list of safe viewing options. Remember: one unguarded moment can change your whole life.
Lou Tomososki knows that.