Eye Safety and Solar Eclipses

B. Ralph Chou, MSc, OD
Associate Professor, School of Optometry, University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G1

A total solar eclipse is probably the most spectacular astronomical event that most people will ever experience. There is great interest in eclipses, and thousands of astronomers (both amateur and professional) and eclipse enthusiasts travel around the world to observe and photograph them. A solar eclipse offers students a unique opportunity to see a natural phenomenon that illustrates the basic principles of mathematics and science that are taught through elementary and secondary school. Indeed, many scientists (including astronomers!) have been inspired to study science as a result of seeing a total solar eclipse. Teachers can use eclipses to show how the laws of motion and the mathematics of orbital motion can predict the occurrence of eclipses. The use of pinhole cameras and telescopes or binoculars to observe an eclipse leads to an understanding of the optics of these devices. The rise and fall of environmental light levels during an eclipse illustrate the principles of radiometry and photometry, while biology classes can observe the associated behavior of plants and animals. It is also an opportunity for children of school age to contribute actively to scientific research - observations of contact timings at different locations along the eclipse path are useful in refining our knowledge of the orbital motions of the moon and earth, and sketches and photographs of the solar corona can be used to build a three-dimensional picture of the sun's extended atmosphere during the eclipse.

However, observing the Sun can be dangerous if you do not take the proper precautions. The solar radiation that reaches the surface of the earth includes ultraviolet (UV) radiation at wavelengths longer than 290 nm, to radio waves in the meter range. The tissues in the eye transmit a substantial part of the radiation between 380 and 1400 nm to the light-sensitive retina at the back of the eye. While environmental exposure to UV radiation is known to contribute to the accelerated aging of the outer layers of the eye and the development of cataracts, the concern over improper viewing of the Sun during an eclipse is for the development of "eclipse blindness" or retinal burns.

Exposure of the retina to intense visible light causes damage to its light-sensitive rod and cone cells. The light triggers a series of complex chemical reactions within the cells which damages their ability to respond to a visual stimulus, and in extreme cases, can destroy them. The result is a loss of visual function which may be either temporary or permanent, depending on the severity of the damage. When a person looks repeatedly or for a long time at the Sun without proper protection for the eyes, this photochemical retinal damage may be accompanied by a thermal injury - the high level of visible light causes heating that literally cooks the exposed tissue. This thermal injury or photocoagulation destroys the rods and cones, creating a small blind area. The danger to vision is significant because photic retinal injuries occur without any feeling of pain (the retina has no pain receptors), and the visual effects do not occur for at least several hours after the damage is done (Pitts, 1993). Viewing the sun through binoculars, a telescope or other optical devices without proper protective filters can result in thermal retinal injury because of the high irradiance level due to visible light, as well as near infrared radiation, in the magnified image. The only time that the Sun can be viewed safely with the naked eye is during a total eclipse, when the moon completely covers the Sun. It is never safe to look at the partial phases of any eclipse without the proper equipment and techniques. Even when 99.9% of the sun's surface (the photosphere) is obscured during the partial phases of a solar eclipse, the remaining crescent Sun is still intense enough to cause a retinal burn, even though illumination levels are comparable to twilight (Chou, 1981, 1996; Marsh, 1982). Failure to use proper observing methods may result in permanent eye damage or severe visual loss. This can have important adverse effects on career choices and earning potential, since it has been shown that most individuals who sustain eclipse-related eye injuries are children and young adults (Penner and McNair, 1966; Chou and Krailo, 1981).

The same techniques for observing the Sun outside of eclipses are used to view and photograph annular solar eclipses and the partly eclipsed Sun (Sherrod, 1981; Pasachoff 2000; Pasachoff & Covington, 1993; Reynolds & Sweetsir, 1995). The safest and most inexpensive method is by projection. A pinhole or small opening is used to form an image of the Sun on a screen placed about a meter behind the opening. Multiple openings in perfboard, a loosely woven straw hat, or even between interlaced fingers can be used to cast a pattern of solar images on a screen. A similar effect is seen on the ground below a broad-leafed tree: the many "pinholes" formed by overlapping leaves creates hundreds of crescent-shaped images. Binoculars or a small telescope mounted on a tripod can also be used to project a magnified image of the Sun onto a white card. All of these methods can be used to provide a safe view of the partial phases of an eclipse to a group of observers, but care must be taken to ensure that no-one looks through the device. The main advantage of the projection methods is that nobody is looking directly at the Sun. The disadvantage of the pinhole method is that the screen must be placed at least a meter behind the opening to get a solar image that is large enough to see easily.

The Sun can only be viewed directly when filters specially designed to protect the eyes are used. Most of these filters have a thin layer of chromium alloy or aluminum deposited on their surfaces that attenuates both visible and near-infrared radiation. A safe solar filter should transmit less than 0.003% (density~4.5) of visible light (380 to 780 nm) and no more than 0.5% (density~2.3) of the near-infrared radiation (780 to 1400 nm). Figure 23 shows transmittance curves for a selection of safe solar filters. One of the most widely available filters for safe solar viewing is shade number 14 welder's glass, which can be obtained from welding supply outlets. A popular inexpensive alternative is aluminized polyester that has been made specially for solar observation. ("Space blankets" and aluminized polyester used in gardening are NOT suitable for this purpose!) Unlike the welding glass, aluminized polyester can be cut to fit any viewing device, and doesn't break when dropped. It has recently been pointed out that some aluminized polyester filters may have large (up to approximately 1 mm in size) defects in their aluminum coatings that may be hazardous. A microscopic analysis of examples of such defects shows that despite their appearance, the defects arise from a hole in one of the two aluminized polyester films used in the filter. There is no large opening completely devoid of the protective aluminum coating. While this is a quality control problem, the presence of a defect in the aluminum coating does not necessarily imply that the filter is hazardous. When in doubt, an aluminized polyester solar filter that has coating defects larger than 0.2 mm in size, or more than a single defect in any 5 mm circular zone of the filter, should not be used. An alternative to aluminized polyester solar filter material that has become quite popular is "black polymer" in which carbon particles are suspended in a resin matrix. This material is somewhat stiffer than polyester and requires a special holding cell if it is to be used at the front of binoculars, telephoto lenses or telescopes. Intended mainly as a visual filter, the polymer gives a yellow image of the Sun (aluminized polyester produces a blue-white image). This type of filter may show significant variations in density of the tint across its extent; some areas may appear much lighter than others. Lighter areas of the filter transmit more infrared radiation than may be desirable. A recent development is a filter that consists of aluminum- coated black polymer. Combining the best features of polyester and black polymer, this new material may eventually replace both as the filter of choice in solar eclipse viewers. The transmittance curve of one of these hybrid filters (Polymer Plus by Thousand Oaks Optical) is shown in Figure 23. Another material, Baader AstroSolar Safety Film, can be used for both visual and photographic solar observations. It is an ultrathin resin film with excellent optical quality and less scattered light than most polyester filters. Many experienced solar observers use one or two layers of black-and-white film that has been fully exposed to light and developed to maximum density. The metallic silver contained in the film emulsion is the protective filter; however any black-and-white negative with images in it is not suitable for this purpose. More recently, solar observers have used floppy disks and compact disks (CDs and CD-ROMs) as protective filters by covering the central openings and looking through the disk media. However, the optical quality of the solar image formed by a floppy disk or CD is relatively poor compared to aluminized polyester or welder's glass. Some CDs are made with very thin aluminum coatings which are not safe - if you can see through the CD in normal room lighting, don't use it!! No filter should be used with an optical device (e.g. binoculars, telescope, camera) unless it has been specifically designed for that purpose and is mounted at the front end. Some sources of solar filters are listed below.

Unsafe filters include color film, black-and-white film that contains no silver, film negatives with images on them, smoked glass, sunglasses (single or multiple pairs), photographic neutral density filters and polarizing filters. Most of these transmit high levels of invisible, infrared radiation which can cause a thermal retinal burn (see Figure 23). The fact that the Sun appears dim, or that you feel no discomfort when looking at the Sun through the filter, is no guarantee that your eyes are safe. Solar filters designed to thread into eyepieces that are often provided with inexpensive telescopes are also unsafe. These glass filters often crack unexpectedly from overheating when the telescope is pointed at the Sun, and retinal damage can occur faster than the observer can move the eye from the eyepiece. Avoid unnecessary risks. Your local planetarium, science center, or amateur astronomy club can provide additional information on how to observe the eclipse safely.

There are some concerns that UVA radiation (wavelengths between 315 and 380 nm) in sunlight may also adversely affect the retina (Del Priore, 1991). While there is some experimental evidence for this, it only applies to the special case of aphakia, where the natural lens of the eye has been removed because of cataract or injury, and no UV-blocking spectacle, contact or intraocular lens has been fitted. In an intact normal human eye, UVA radiation does not reach the retina because it is absorbed by the crystalline lens. In aphakia, normal environmental exposure to solar UV radiation may indeed cause chronic retinal damage. However, the solar filter materials discussed in this article attenuate solar UV radiation to a level well below the minimum permissible occupational exposure for UVA (ACGIH, 1994), so an aphakic observer is at no additional risk of retinal damage when looking at the Sun through a proper solar filter.

In the days and weeks before a solar eclipse occurs, there are often news stories and announcements in the media, warning about the dangers of looking at the eclipse. Unfortunately, despite the good intentions behind these messages, they frequently contain misinformation, and may be designed to scare people from seeing the eclipse at all. However, this tactic may backfire, particularly when the messages are intended for students. A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, AIDS, or smoking is given? Misinformation may be just as bad, if not worse than no information (Pasachoff, 2001).

Remember that the total phase of an eclipse can and should be seen without any filters, and certainly never by projection! It is completely safe to do so. Even after observing 15 solar eclipses, I find the naked eye view of the totally eclipsed Sun awe-inspiring. I hope you will also enjoy the experience.

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