How the Eyecare Profession Saw the Light About UV

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Images courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
A century ago, many believed UV exposure was good for vision. It took decades of research and investment to raise awareness of the real risks. Today, the hazards of ultraviolet light are well known. Surveys show that 90 percent of respondents take some steps to protect themselves from the dangers of the sun, even if it’s just putting on a hat and rubbing sunscreen on their body. There’s still too much risky behavior—just count the number of tanning salons in your hometown if you doubt it—but UV awareness is one of the success stories in preventive health care.

That wasn’t always the case. Consider the shift during the last 30 years. Back in 1988, a Johns Hopkins study of cataracts among Chesapeake Bay shore workers was considered a major news story. We would hardly be surprised today to learn that heavy doses of sunlight lead to a 300 percent increase in the likelihood of cataracts. But at the time, the New York Times announced that this connection had previously been in doubt and that the potential for cataracts represented a “significant new risk.”

Newly-released documents and images from the Optical Heritage Museum in Southbridge, Massachusetts, many of them not seen for decades, show how eyecare professionals anticipated the Chesapeake Bay study by more than a half-century. At a time when public service advertising was almost unknown in health care, they educated the general public on the need to protect their eyes from dangerous rays. These materials come from the archives of American Optical, now part of Carl Zeiss Vision, a company that played a key role in this campaign.


Images courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
A century ago, some eyecare practitioners even believed that UV exposure was good for patients’ vision. The archives include the text of a 1916 letter from an optometrist who claimed that nature intended humans to experience the full spectrum of light, and thus blocking UV would imply that “nature contradicts itself.”

Around this same time, American Optical launched the first marketing program in the U.S. on UV-related vision risks. Window displays and advertising materials brought the message both to practitioners and the general public.

The company also focused research efforts on developing UV-blocking technologies. In 1915, American Optical boasted of its success in passing a stringent test from a Yale University professor heading to South American on a research expedition. The AO eyewear was chosen specifically for its radiation-blocking properties, and the company was proud to offer this same protection to the public.

In the 1920s and 1930s, awareness of ultraviolet risk was still low. But American Optical pushed ahead with its UV-blocking Cruxite lenses in the U.S. while Zeiss took the lead in Europe with its UV-safe Umbral sunwear. These were high tech options in their day, but would eventually set a standard for patient care.


Images courtesy of Carl Zeiss Vision
There was still very little clinical data on sunlight and vision at that time. But experienced practitioners had seen so many cases of patients with outdoor professions who developed severe cataracts that they were receptive to a more pro-active approach. In this way, the profession and its leading suppliers took the lead in UV awareness, with academic studies following decades later.

The Apollo moon mission presented American Optical with its biggest UV-blocking challenge. On planet Earth, the atmosphere absorbs most UV radiation before it reaches us, but travelers to outer space are exposed to dangerous levels. NASA picked AO as sunwear provider for its lunar program, and each astronaut was outfitted with glasses for the longest trip in human history.

“Whether you’re going to outer space or just outdoors, you still need to take precautions to protect your vision,” commented Zeiss vice president Karen Roberts. “And today, we need to raise awareness of all light-related risks, not just UV. We are still in the early stages of educating the public about the potential impact of the blue light from phones, tablets and other screens.

“Technologies have improved, but education is still the starting point. That way, we solve problems before they begin,” Roberts concluded.