Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Irish eyes might smile, but watch the UV danger

Things are not always how we see them, and the fact that we don't have as many sunny days as they have in Australia doesn't mean that we are in less eye-health danger here from exposure to ultra-violet radiation, writes Brian Byrne.

In fact, according to Kilcullen's optometrist Nichola Kennedy, our eyes are just as much at risk here as in sunnier climes. But most of us don't realise it.

"Even on overcast days, the UV effect is very high here," Nichola says. "Not just in summer, at other times of the year too. Where Ireland is located on the planet, the sun is lower in the sky than in countries closer to the equator, so there can be UV exposure for longer periods in the morning and evening."

Anyone who has holidayed in southern Spain or other parts of the Mediterranean will be familiar with this. The sun sets earlier and much more quickly, and rises later and faster. "Where we are, the angle of sun in the mornings and evenings means that a cap brim won't protect eyes. So for Ireland, when we say that the most danger to skin is from 12 noon to 3pm, for eyes it is the mornings and evenings."

Even winter days with any sunlight are of concern, because wet roads and other shiny surfaces also reflect the UV rays in all directions. "Reflectivity is a big issue, and that's why polarised sunglasses are the best option here, because they cut reflections from every angle. And they deal with glare, a major issue when you're driving, for instance."

Many lenses prescribed by an optometrist will nowadays include an anti-glare coating and also a specific UV factor protection. Quality sunglasses will also include UV filters in their design, but that's not necessarily the case with all sunglasses available for sale.

"You need to make sure that they declare a UV filter rating, and also that they have the CE mark which shows they are certified for sale in the EU," says Nichola, who recently marked her 11th anniversary of looking after eyes in Kilcullen. "Cheap sunglasses that don't have UV filters only cut down on light levels. That means pupils enlarge to compensate, which actually lets more UV reach the vulnerable parts of the eye. So you can possibly suffer even more damage than without the glasses at all."

That damage can result in a range of problems, from lumps and bumps on the eyelid to cataracts in later life. "It can happen even in younger people," Nichola observes, adding that when people take the precaution of putting on sunscreen, they usually miss the eyelids because it is not recommended that the lotion gets into the eyes.

So, if we need sunglasses here, how often and in what circumstances? "Well, more than we do at the moment. In places like Australia they are much more aware, and it is normal practice virtually from birth. By the time the children are going to school it is automatic — they remember where they have left their sunglasses, and also to bring them when they leave home. Like the sunscreen and the hat. We don't spend as much time outdoors as the Australians do, and the sun doesn't shine as much, but we do need to be much more aware of the UV danger for the long term health of our eyes."

The issue is as important for those who spend a lot of time outside as it is for children, and Nichola notes that people such as farmers and those in the construction industry, and in leisure pursuits ranging from canoeing to angling to hillwalking do need to be aware of the need for eye protection against UV. "Sunglasses in Ireland should not be just about looking cool. They need to be a focused part of our overall attitude to health."

In addition to causing skin cancer and eye health issues, exposure to UV radiation can also suppress the body's immune system, according to the American Cancer Society. That opens up a whole new discussion, but for another time. Just now here, the eyes have it.