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Nation & World

Science Says: Solar specs needed for safe viewing of eclipse

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – With the total solar eclipse right around the cosmic corner, eye doctors are going into nagging overdrive.

They say mom was right: You can damage your eyes staring at the sun, even the slimmest sliver of it.

So it’s time to rustle up special eclipse eyewear to use Aug. 21, when the U.S. has its first full solar eclipse spanning coast to coast in 99 years.

“We have an opportunity to experience a spectacular natural phenomenon, and we can enjoy it with some simple protection. But if you don’t use that protection, you’ll be paying for it for the rest of your life,” says Dr. Paul Sternberg, director of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute in Nashville, smack dab in the middle of the total eclipse path.

No peeking, for example, without eclipse glasses or other certified filters except during the 2 minutes or so when the moon completely blots out the sun, called totality. That’s the only time it’s safe to view the eclipse without protection. When totality is ending, then it’s time to put them back on.

To be clear, totality means 100 percent of the sun is covered. That will occur only along a narrow strip including southern Illinois. The Sauk Valley area is in the 90 percent partial eclipse area. The rest of the U.S. gets a partial eclipse that extends into Canada and to the top of South America.

What can happen when you look directly at the sun? You’re essentially cooking your retina, the delicate, light-sensitive tissue deep inside the eyeball. Solar radiation can kill those cells. Hours can pass before you realize the extent of
the damage.

It’s known in the trade as solar blindness or solar retinopathy – not total blindness, rather more like age-related macular degeneration, where you have trouble reading or recognizing faces, or lose those abilities altogether.

Seconds are enough for retinal sunburn. And unlike with the skin, you can’t feel it. The damage can be temporary or permanent.

Forget sunglasses. Certified eclipse glasses or hand-held viewers are a must for direct viewing. Or you can look indirectly with a pinhole projector – homemade will do, crafted from a shoebox, or grab a kitchen colander – that casts images of the eclipsed sun onto a screen at least 3 feet away.

When it comes to eyewear, though, the emphasis is on certified.

Worried about potentially dangerous knockoffs, NASA, the American Astronomical Society and others are urging eclipse watchers to stick with reputable makers of sun-gazing devices. The society’s solar eclipse task force has put out a list of approved manufacturers.

Don’t use eclipse glasses with filters that are crumpled, scratched or torn. If you can see any light besides the sun, it’s time for new solar specs. Also beware if the eclipse glasses are older than 2015, when international safety standards were adopted.

Eclipse glasses can be worn directly over your prescription glasses or with contacts. As for binoculars, telescopes and cameras, high-quality solar filters are essential and must be mounted at the front end.

Chou collected and studied 20 reports of temporary eye injuries following a 1979 total solar eclipse that included Canada. Males under age 20 were found to be particularly susceptible; they tended to ignore safety warnings, he said.

In 1999, British doctors reported 70 cases of temporary eye damage following a full solar eclipse. Most cases involved no or inadequate eye protection and many were from spots with a partial eclipse, just shy of a full one.

Chou stresses that outside the path of totality, where there’s only a partial eclipse, “it’s never safe to take the filters off.”

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