Many Employees Not Aware of Sun-Related Vision Risks
Jul 1, 2012
Sunscreen is one of the first items people grab when heading to the beach or anywhere where they’ll be in the sun for a long period of time. We’ve all paid the price of forgetting to use it — a nasty sunburn, greasy aloe creams, and cringing when anything touches our red, blistered skin.
Most individuals understand the effects of the sun’s UV rays as well as the cancer potential of prolonged UV radiation exposure to the skin. These effects have been well documented by the medical community and promoted to the general public, but many people aren’t aware of the dangers UV exposure poses to their eyes.
In the short term, prolonged exposure to UV radiation can burn the front surface of the eye (snow blindness), which is similar to sunburn on the skin. The cumulative effects are much worse, and can contribute to a variety of eye issues, including cataracts, keratitis, various eye and skin cancers, wrinkles and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Benefit managers can play an important role in employees’ vision wellness by communicating the danger UV radiation poses to their eyes and how they can better protect themselves when outdoors.
Studies Reveal Dangers of Sun Exposure to Eyes
Multiple studies have investigated the effects of UV exposure to the eyes. The Beaver Dam Eye Study (www.bdeyestudy.org), funded by the National Eye Institute, is an ongoing study that collects information on the prevalence and incidence of age-related cataract, macular degeneration (AMD) and diabetic retinopathy, common eye diseases causing loss of vision in an aging population.
The study found that:
- Increased sun exposure in the teens and into the 30s increases the risk of developing early retinal changes that result in AMD.
- Men with higher levels of UV-B exposure were 1.36 times more likely to develop cortical cataracts, cataracts that affect the edges of the lens and vision as the cataract develops.
- Male smokers were 3.3 times and female smokers were 2.5 times more likely to have exudative macular degeneration.
Another study, the Chesapeake Bay Waterman Study, profiled about 800 fishermen who had spent years on the water. The study found that:
- Those fishermen who wore no eye protection had three times as many cataracts as those who wore sunglasses or a brimmed hat.
- Men with double the exposure to UV-B had a 60 percent increased prevalence of cortical cataracts.
- Over 80 percent in each age group over 30 revealed deposits in the retina, which can be indicative of early macular degeneration.
How Employees Can Protect Their Eyes
The simplest way for employees to protect their eyes from UV radiation is to wear sunglasses that block 99-100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B rays. Sunglass manufacturers don't always attach a label to identify how much UV radiation each pair of sunglasses block, so employees should be sure to look for those sunglasses that indicate the level of UV protection they provide.
Wearing wrap-around sunglasses or a wide-brimmed hat will offer further protection by blocking UV rays from entering the eye from above and the side.
Employees who wear contacts can opt for UV-blocking contacts, which absorb UV radiation, reducing the amount of radiation that reaches the surface of the eye. Those employees who wear prescription glasses can protect themselves by wearing prescription sunglasses or selecting photochromic lenses, lenses that darken automatically when exposed to UV radiation.
It’s important that employees understand their eyes have the greatest risk of UV radiation exposure from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. This is in contrast to the period of greatest UV exposure to the skin, which is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eyes are not as susceptible to UV radiation during this period because the eyebrows provide protection from overhead sun.
Employees should be aware that the danger of UV exposure exists even on cloudy days because snow, water, sand and pavement reflect UV rays, increasing the amount of radiation that reaches the eyes.
Children at Greatest Risk
Anyone spending time outdoors is vulnerable to the effects of UV radiation, but certain individuals face higher risks than others. These individuals include those taking certain medications, people living at high altitudes, users of tanning beds, those who work outdoors, those working on the water and participants in specific sports. Children, however, are at the greatest risk.
According to several studies, the average child receives approximately three times the annual UV dose of the average adult and up to 80 percent of lifetime exposure before age 20. In children under 10 years of age, the lens transmits 75 percent of the UV radiation to the inner eye structures, compared to only 10 percent in a 25-year-old.
According to Prevent Blindness America, employees should keep the following pointers in mind when choosing sunglasses for children:1
- Check to make sure the sunglasses fit well and are not damaged.
- Choose sunglasses that fit their child's lifestyle. The lenses should be impact resistant and should not pop out of the frames.
- Choose lenses that are large enough to shield the eyes from most angles.
- Find a wide-brimmed hat for their child to wear along with the sunglasses. Wearing a hat can cut in half the amount of UV rays that reach the eyes.
Don’t Forget an Eye Exam
Sun damage to the eyes is cumulative, meaning the exposure of UV radiation today, or even as a child, can lead to future vision problems. One of the greatest ways employees can ensure their eyes stay healthy is to schedule a comprehensive (dilated) eye exam with their eye care professional.
Comprehensive eye exams are a good way to detect UV-related vision issues and provide treatment if indicated, monitor their eye health and maintain good vision.
Employees who have no symptoms or special risk factors should have a comprehensive eye exam every 2-3 years (for those ages 20-39), every 2-4 years (for those ages 40-64) or every year (for those age 65 and older).
Employees with special risks (e.g., diabetes, a previous eye trauma, surgery or a family history of glaucoma) may need an eye exam more frequently.
About the Author
Dr. Lahr is the medical director and vice president of Provider Relations for EyeMed Vision Care. He has more than 34 years of experience in clinical care, ophthalmic and optometric consulting and managed vision care.
1 Prevent Blindness American website. “Choosing UV Protection.” [www.preventblindness.org/choosing-uv-protection]