FISH-SAFE: Here comes the sun – Don’t overlook eye protection

As spring finally creeps its way into the region, I was reminded this past week of the Beatles’ song with George Harrison’s catchy lyrics:

“Here comes the sun

Here comes the sun

and I say it’s alright;

Little darling, it’s been a long and lonely winter

Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been here…”

The sun continues to climb back to our northern hemisphere as we ease into May and is getting stronger every day.  It is great to look to the East and see how much farther north it rises every couple of days.

The early dawn is great for fishermen.  It may even be light, or getting there, by the time you leave the harbor.

On the downside, (sorry, there is a downside), the stronger, warmer, closer sun brings with it ultraviolet (UV)
rays – and too much exposure to UV can damage skin and eyes.

UV light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum that includes radio waves and microwaves along with X-rays and gamma rays.

Radio waves are very long and have low energy, but X-rays and gamma rays are very short and have high energy.

The visible spectrum – the waves we can see as light – falls about in the middle, between radio waves and gamma waves.

The invisible UV waves are right next door to the visible light waves.  Ultraviolet waves are shorter but have more energy than visible light waves.

UV from the sun is a mix of three different wavelengths which penetrate tissue of skin and eyes to different depths, much as different lengths of rope drop to different depths of the ocean.

The three types of UV waves are UVC, UVB, UVA.

A fourth wavelength known as blue violet is part of the visible spectrum (think rainbow).  We have to discuss this wavelength along with the UV wavelengths because it also can affect our tissues, especially eyes.

See the accompanying  table showing UV rays, their wavelengths, energy, and ability to affect changes in skin and eyes.

How to protect eyes, skin

In the eyes, exposure to UVB can result in growths on the white of the eye (pinqueculae).  These can grow onto the cornea, the tissue that covers the lens.

The longer wavelength UVA penetrates deeper than the cornea and can result in cataracts, which are growths in the lens.  Cataracts give you dull cloudy vision and can progress, if not addressed, to poor vision and blindness.  Cataract surgery replaces the lens with an intraocular lens (IOL).

While both these conditions are treatable with surgery, a better approach is to prevent the development of pinqueculae and cataracts by wearing sunglasses labeled as providing 100% UV protection or UV400.  As you can see from looking at the table, UV400 means that you have protection from wavelengths up to 400 nanometers.

What matters with sunglasses?  Foremost, it is important to read the label on the sunglasses you are about to purchase   A 2014 study by the American Academy of Ophthamology showed that 47% of people purchasing sunglasses didn’t read the label before purchasing.

Polarized lenses cut the glare but do not, in and of themselves, protect from UV exposure.  So no need to insist on polarized lenses.

Also darker is not better.  Again it is more important to choose glasses that protect from UVA and UVB.

Finally, large or wraparound glasses provide better protection.  Especially for those of you on the water, where reflection is great, wraparound sunglasses are highly recommended.

And … even if you have sun protective contact lenses, you should still be wearing sunglasses.

Just a word about blue violet visible light.

The wavelength of this light is very long, 400-500 nanometers as compared to the invisible UV light waves.  Blue violet light can penetrate deeply into the eye and cause changes in the retina at the back of the eye.

Over time these changes can result in age-related macula degeneration (AMD), and this condition is irreversible and not treatable with surgery.

Several years ago, I read that the sunglasses that protect from retinal damage are those with copper or amber tint that are wraparound.

But I cannot find any reference to amber sunglasses in my research for this article.

Bottom line:  If you find amber sunglasses marked UV400 or 100% UV protection, they should be fine and perhaps preferable to green glasses.

Also, don’t forget the sunscreen.

We could write this same article and substitute skin for eyes.

The short wavelengths damage superficial skin tissues and the longer wavelengths penetrate more deeply into the skin and can do damage to deep skin tissues – namely DNA damage that can result in skin cancer.

So the whole summer protection package for fishermen should  include sunscreen, hat, and 100% UV protection wraparound sunglasses – regardless of whether it is a bright blue sky or a cloudy day.  And the same goes for your friends, children, and grandchildren.

I have just convinced myself to invest in a new pair of sunglasses for the coming summer of 2018.  What about you?





Ann Backus, MS, is the director of outreach for the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health in Boston, MA.  She may be reached by phone at (617) 432-3327 or by e-mail at <abackus@hsph.harvard.edu>.


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