While there is a lot of excitement surrounding the total solar eclipse that will cross into North Georgia on Aug. 21, many have expressed concerns about eye safety when looking directly at the sun during this once-in-a-generation event.
So is it really dangerous to look directly at an eclipse? Can it cause blindness? Actually, yes.
“It’s not going to make the vision go completely black as in black blindness, but it makes it to where it is a severe vision loss permanently,” said Dr. Elizabeth Ellison, an optometrist with Gainesville Eye Associates. “Blind is vision of 20-200 or worse for the state of Georgia for driving and such. ... They’ll just be able to see light.”
Ellison and her husband, Dr. Stephen Ellison, also an optometrist at Gainesville Eye Associates, shared information and tips for those interested in watching the eclipse. The eye condition most associated with people who suffer damage from watching an eclipse is solar retinopathy.
“That’s when a high amount of sunlight or UV can damage the retina,” Stephen Ellison said. “You can get that anytime just looking at the sun, but we see a spike in it around eclipses because everyone’s looking at the sun. Even just a few seconds can cause permanent damage.”
“The center part of our retina is called the macula and that is responsible for reading and seeing people’s faces and having 20-20 vision,” Elizabeth Ellison said. “That’s the part that gets affected in solar retinopathy. When you first look directly at the sun, what happens is it damages the center part. It’s permanent. There’s no way we can treat it.”
Stephen Ellison added the condition affects the “central spot in your vision” and can also “change your color vision overall.”
“If that’s damaged, your color vision is going to be off,” he said. “It will definitely alter your color vision.”
While Ellisons haven’t seen cases of solar retinopathy as a result of looking directly in the sun, they said some of their fellow eye doctors have. They have seen cases where welders suffered eye injuries that cause similar effects.
“If they aren’t using their proper eye protection or shield and they’re trying to weld just closing their eyes or using their sunglasses, it’s the same effect,” Stephen Ellison said. “They have all that light coming in that can damage the retina.
“With solar retinopathy, the effects come 12 to 24 hours after the event. The welders, when they have their eyes injured, it’s not right after they’re doing the welding; it’s that night or the next day that they notice it. You don’t really know how much damage is being done at that moment, so that’s why you have to be very careful.”
While he said the “safest option is not to look” at the sun during an eclipse, Stephen Ellison said using approved eclipse glasses is a way to look at the sun during the event without damaging eyes. He said the glasses should meet the requirements for the ISO 12312-2 safety standard, which is approved by NASA. He said the glasses are darker than sunglasses and provide the needed eye protection.
The approved glasses are being sold both online and in stores, although several local stores said this week they were out of the glasses but may be getting more before Aug. 21. A public event about the eclipse is scheduled for Aug. 20 from 1-4 p.m. at the planetarium at the University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus where approved glasses will be given away until all are gone. In addition, the UNG Gainesville campus and Lanier Technical College will be giving away glasses to students Aug. 21 just before the eclipse starts.
Stephen Ellison said another way to watch is through a pinhole projector made from a two pieces of paper or stiff white cardboard. After cutting a pinhole in the paper or cardboard, he said a person can hold it toward the sun and it “projects an image down on the ground. So, you can see the eclipse without actually looking at it,” he said.
Both recommended against using a camera or binoculars to photograph or look at the sun during an eclipse.
Ready for the moon shadow?
Check your glasses
NASA and the American Astronomical Society have a list of reputable solar viewing devices that are certified to be safe, found at this website: eclipse.aas.org/resources/solar-filters
Eclipse educational event
When: 1-4 p.m. Aug. 20
Where: Room 234, George E. Coleman Sr. Planetarium, 159 Sunset Drive, Dahlonega
More information: ung.edu/planetarium/solar-eclipse-program.php