Solar eclipse: Eye health warning

However, observing the Sun can be dangerous if you do not take the proper precautions. The solar radiation that reaches the surface of Earth ranges from ultraviolet (UV) radiation at wavelengths longer than 290 nm to radio waves in the meter range. The tissues in the eye transmit a substantial part of the radiation between 380 and 1400 nm to the light-sensitive retina at the back of the eye. While environmental exposure to UV radiation is known to contribute to the accelerated aging of the outer layers of the eye and the development of cataracts, the concern over improper viewing of the Sun during an eclipse is for the development of “eclipse blindness” or retinal burns.

Exposure of the retina to intense visible light causes damage to its light-sensitive rod and cone cells. The light triggers a series of complex chemical reactions within the cells which damages their ability to respond to a visual stimulus, and in extreme cases, can destroy them. The result is a loss of visual function which may be either temporary or permanent, depending on the severity of the damage. When a person looks repeatedly or for a long time at the Sun without proper protection for the eyes, this photochemical retinal damage may be accompanied by a thermal injury – the high level of visible and near-infrared radiation causes heating that literally cooks the exposed tissue. This thermal injury or photocoagulation destroys the rods and cones, creating a small blind area. The danger to vision is significant because photic retinal injuries occur without any feeling of pain (there are no pain receptors in the retina), and the visual effects do not occur for at least several hours after the damage is done [Pitts, 1993].

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