The Oregon Office of Emergency Management expects 1 million visitors to descend on our state on August 21, when the moon will cover the sun in a total solar eclipse. This rare celestial phenomenon has captivated the nation, and with parts of Oregon in the zone of totality, where the moon will completely cover the sun, people all over the state will have their eyes pointed upward.
It’s common knowledge that it’s dangerous to stare straight into the sun, but LCMS members Dr. Peter Karth and Dr. Robert Beardsley with Oregon Eye Consultants want physicians and members of the public to understand that even a few seconds of looking with the naked eye at the eclipse before or after it reaches totality can lead to permanent retina damage known as solar retinopathy. With proper eye protection, viewers can observe the eclipse safely, but eye damage is so closely linked with eclipses that this condition is also known as eclipse retinopathy. Only during the short time of full totality is it safe to remove eye protection.
“The way the retina gets damaged is through blue light and ultraviolet-B light that gets past the lens and the cornea and makes its way to the retina,” Karth explains. “It’s mostly the ultraviolet light that causes a photochemical effect on the retina, although some damage can occur from infrared wavelengths.”
After direct exposure to sunlight, the retina pigment epithelium cells and photoreceptors experience oxidative damage, a chemical reaction that results in injury of the retinal tissue. Symptoms start to occur 12 to 48 hours after the initial damage, appearing as a blur or dark spot near the center of vision.
“Events like this can cause damage that you just can’t fix, and your eye just doesn’t know how to repair it,” Beardsley says. “That’s why prevention is more important than diagnosis in this case.”
Beardsley and Karth recommend a handful of safe ways to view the eclipse, chief among them special eclipse glasses, which can be purchased online, around town at camera stores, and at ophthalmology offices like Oregon Eye Consultants. The cost varies from $3 to $10 per pair.
Karth cautions that regular sunglasses won’t cut it – the glasses need to have a safety rating of “ISO 12312-2:2015” and it’s best to purchase glasses that are specifically designed for eclipse-viewing. Karth says that Number 14 welder’s glasses will also work.
In Eugene, the eclipse won’t reach 100% totality, since we’re slightly outside the path of totality. This means viewers need to keep their glasses on for the entirety of the event in Eugene. Many in Eugene plan to travel to cities where they can observe the total solar eclipse, including Corvallis, Newport, and some towns in eastern Oregon. In the zone of totality, viewers can remove the glasses for a short time while the sun is completely blocked by the moon to observe the shimmering solar corona in all its brilliance.
“While it’s totally excluded, you may look at it with the naked eye,” Karth suggests. “Protection will make you miss the really cool part of the eclipse, so you have to take the glasses off, but be sure to put them back on the moment totality ends. You can get damage even when 99% of the sun is excluded.”
Karth and Beardsley stress that prevention is key, but if damage does happen, there’s no need to rush to an emergency room. Once the injury has happened, ophthalmologists can diagnose the condition, but currently no cures exist. There are possible treatments for some severe cases, but timing is not especially critical.
“It may improve as time goes by, but it won’t ever completely heal,” Beardsley notes, adding with a laugh that the sun is “a big, bright, yellow thing – there’s a reason why it hurts to look at it!”
LCMS, Oregon Eye Consultants, and the Eugene YMCA will host a free eclipse viewing party on Monday, Aug. 21, at the YMCA Field (19th and Patterson in Eugene). Eclipse glasses donated by Oregon Eye Consultants will be available for free. The event starts at 9:30 am, and the eclipse begins around 10:15 am. This is a family-friendly event and all are welcome to attend.