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Safe eclipse viewing: watch out for children, take care with cellphones

AP file photo
Emmalyn Johnson, 3, tries on her free pair of eclipse glasses at Mauney Memorial Library in Kings Mountain, N.C.

Solar eclipses often tempt people — especially children — to look up at the sun as it darkens, but the damage to the eye can be swift and terrible, said Dr. Ghassan Ghorayeb.

Monday’s eclipse should not be viewed directly at all without approved solar eclipse glasses or filters, said Ghorayeb, an associate professor and director of the vitreo-retinal fellowship at West Virginia University, and chief of the ocular oncology division of the university’s Eye Institute.

“The damage that occurs is a thermal burn to the retina that can cause permanent damage to the eye. It happens in less than a millisecond,” said Ghorayeb.

The damage is so intense it can leave a person legally blind in both eyes, he said.

“The scary part about an eclipse is that the natural blinking reflex we usually have when the sun is pointing at you directly — that does not allow us to really look at the sun — is not present. Therefore, you’re able to gaze at it for longer,” he said. “However, the damage from the radiation-like effect are not any less.”

Ghorayeb urged adults to school themselves on the dangers of unfiltered eclipse viewing so as to protect children and others who might not get the message.

“The message is for adults to understand and to relay information to children and minors and the elderly who don’t have access to the media as much,” he said.

Because of the risk to children, the Logan County school system will release all students in the county from school at 10:30 a.m. Monday, so that they are not getting on buses at the time of the eclipse and might happen to look at the partial eclipse over West Virginia. The idea was promoted by Logan County school board member Ed White, a Logan optometrist.

“The timing is unfortunate because the kids will be dismissed from school and getting on buses during the time the eclipse is going on,” said White. “We don’t want them to be exposed to that.”

Since the eclipse will only be partial in the West Virginia skies, there will be constant danger from looking at the sun as the moon eclipses it, only covering it up by about 90 percent at the height of the event across the state.

“That’s even more dangerous because there’s no point where the sun is entirely covered. So, there’s no lull in the risk,” White said.

Another big danger is the temptation to snap a cellphone shot of the eclipse and if the sun is not at totally covered by the moon — which it will not be in West Virginia — damaging one’s eyes by glimpsing the sun, said WVU’s Ghorayeb. (NASA has published a guide on safely photographing the eclipse.)

Caution and education will make for a safe eclipse experience, said Ghorayeb.

“The temptation is going to be high to look at the sky. That’s why were raising the alarm,” he said. “It’s very difficult to prevent children not to look up. It’s important we try to prevent that from happening.”

The American Ophthalmology Academy directs people to an American Astronomical Society page of reputable vendors of solar viewers and vendors at eclipse.aas.org/resources/solar-filters

Ghorayeb said four specific vendors had been judged to offer reputable eclipse glasses and viewers: Rainbow Symphony, American Paper Optics, Thousand Oaks Optical and TSE 17.

“Most of us are trying to be as aware as much as we can, especially for children,” he said.

NASA also offers up these safety tips from eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety:

n Stand still and cover your eyes with your eclipse glasses or solar viewer before looking up at the bright sun. After looking at the sun, turn away and remove your filter — do not remove it while looking at the sun.

n Do not look at the uneclipsed or partially eclipsed sun through an unfiltered camera, telescope, binoculars, or other optical device.

n Similarly, do not look at the sun through a camera, a telescope, binoculars, or any other optical device while using your eclipse glasses or hand-held solar viewer — the concentrated solar rays will damage he filter and enter your eyes, causing serious injury.

n Seek expert advice from an astronomer before using a solar filter with a camera, a telescope, binoculars, or any other optical device.

n If you normally wear eyeglasses, keep them on. Put your eclipse glasses on over them, or hold your handheld viewer in front of them.

n An alternative method for safe viewing of the partially eclipsed sun uses just your hands. For example, cross the outstretched, slightly open fingers of one hand over the outstretched, slightly open fingers of the other, creating a waffle pattern. With your back to the sun, look at your hands’ shadow on the ground. The little spaces between your fingers will project a grid of small images on the ground, showing the sun as a crescent during the partial phases of the eclipse. Or just look at the shadow of a leafy tree during the partial eclipse; you’ll see the ground dappled with crescent suns projected by the tiny spaces between the leaves.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-3017 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.

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