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Seconds of exposure, permanent eye damage for woman who looked at eclipse

December 12, 2017 GMT

In the weeks leading up to the August total solar eclipse, the warnings were hard to miss. Each mention of the coming total solar eclipse was accompanied by exhortations on appropriate eye protection.

From the WRAL newsroom to the halls of NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., we wondered. Was the repetition too much?

No, it wasn’t.

In viewer emails, on Facebook and other social media platforms, as well as public talks that I and the WRAL meteorologists gave throughout the community, the most frequently received question continued to be, “Can’t I just glance at it without glasses?”

A 26-year-old Staten Island, New York, woman was similarly eager to experience the eclipse. From her Staten Island home, about 72 percent of the sun was covered by the moon. But, like so many, she was unable to find eye protection.

She viewed the sun “several times for approximately 6 seconds” before borrowing a pair of eclipse glasses of unknown origin and viewing again for 15-20 seconds.

Four hours later she noticed blurred vision, color distortion and metamorphopsia, a distortion that makes straight lines look wavy. Two days later, a crescent shaped black spot appeared in the center of her vision. The following day she went to the emergency room where she was referred to the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai.

Her retinas were scanned in detail. A team of ophthalmologists studied layers of photoreceptor cells which convert light into electrical impulses that are sent on to the brain.

Her eye health was “unremarkable” with no history of eye disease and her vision had been previously corrected to 20/20 and 20/25. But she now had the image of the eclipsed sun permanently burned onto her retinas, specifically cones, which work best in bright light and are most responsible for our being able to see color and detecting small details.

Judging from the shape, it was the inverted and mirror image of the eclipse itself. Like a clocked stopped.

I estimate those few seconds were around 3:30 pm EDT.

In the December Journal of the American Medical Association on Ophthalmology a paper by doctors Avnish Deobhakta, Chris Wu, Michael Jansen and Jorge Andrade describes the diagnosis of acute solar retinopathy in detail.

The next total solar eclipse visible from North America will occur April 8, 2024. Here in Raleigh we’ll see about 78 percent of the sun obscured, roughly equivalent to what permanently damaged this young woman’s vision.

When WRAL meteorologists share information that can keep you and your family safe, whether something as seemingly obvious as “don’t stare at the sun without protection,” or specific instructions to take cover as a severe weather cell approaches your home, please listen.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.