The order of 7,500 solar eclipse glasses arrived late last month. But before Peru State College could began distributing them to students, officials at the Nebraska school realized there was a problem: The glasses were fakes.
Although the paper-framed eyewear appeared to be made for safe eclipse viewing, a spokesman for the college said they did not meet the criteria outlined by NASA. Handing them out could have put thousands of students at risk of serious eye damage and permanent blindness.
“We had so many questions, but after talking to experts, we ultimately decided we weren’t comfortable giving those to students,” said Jason Hogue, the school’s marketing director. “It was an obvious decision once we had the facts.” (The school later ordered glasses from a reputable manufacturer in Arizona.)
Across the country, consumers and retailers have been struggling to identify fraudulent eclipse glasses, viewers and filters, which could cause irreversible damage to users’ eyes. NASA and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) have assembled a list of reputable manufacturers, but they said it has been difficult to guard against copycats, especially on third-party websites. As a result, many say unsafe products abound online ahead of Monday’s widely publicized solar eclipse.
“The market has been overrun with counterfeits and fakes, and many of them were being sold on Amazon,” said Richard Fienberg, a spokesman for the AAS. “It’s become a complete freaking mess.”
He added, “If you don’t have proper glasses, the infrared radiation can literally cook your retina.”
Amazon says it has begun requiring third-party sellers to provide documentation showing that their glasses are compliant with safety standards. A spokeswoman said the company did so “out of an abundance of caution and in the interests of our customers.” (Jeffrey Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon.com, owns The Washington Post.)
Part of the challenge, experts say, is that the industry standard has long been to label eclipse-safe glasses with text on the inside of the frame. But now fraudsters are printing that same text into glasses that do not meet international safety standards.
And as demand heats up for the solar eclipse - an event that will be visible to half a billion people - so has the temptation to cash in.
“It’s a simple motivation: greed,” Fienberg said as he prepared to leave for Madras, Oregon, to view the eclipse. “Greed combined with a total lack of concern for public safety.”
But, Fienberg said, most of the companies approved by the AAS have run out of inventory.
The recalls also have had far-reaching effects on the makers of legitimate eclipse glasses and filters, who say they are now dealing with extra-anxious customers.
“There is a lot of doubt in the water,” said Jen Winter, owner of DayStar Filters in Warrensburg, Missouri. “Our product is quality - we sell to NASA, our filters are in space - but everyone is terrified and questioning absolutely everything. This will have an enormous financial impact, not just on us but our entire industry.”
Winter added that her company has been blocked from selling on Amazon, resulting in more than $250,000 in losses for the company, even though its products are approved by the AAS and NASA. (Fienberg of the AAS confirmed that legitimate sellers have been barred from the site. A spokewoman for Amazon said simply that “listings from sellers who did not provide appropriate documentation have been removed.”)
In all, Winter says she expects the fallout of these recalls to cost her company upward of $1 million.
As of Friday afternoon, most listings on Amazon were sold out, and others were on back order until Aug. 25, four days after the eclipse. (The next solar eclipse in the nation isn’t expected until 2024.)
On eBay, solar glasses - which typically cost 99 cents to $30 - are selling for as much as $24,000 a pair, plus $38 for shipping. A spokesman for the site said employees have been “actively monitoring” listings for unsafe items.
Among eclipse glasses that have been flagged as unsafe are 1,600 pairs distributed by the University of Utah’s John A. Moran Eye Center.
At the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the physics department handed out nearly 500 pairs of eclipse glasses before being notified Thursday that the items might not be safe.
“Obviously we’re devastated,” said Michelle Johnson, a spokeswoman for the university. “Our students had every reason to believe they were safe. I don’t know what you can do if somebody else acts fraudulently.”
Winter, the owner of DayStar Filters, said it will be difficult to rebuild the industry’s reputation.
“It’s easy to lose trust,” she said. “But it’s really, really hard to rebuild it.”