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UV Protection Is About More Than Sunburn
“Most construction workers are well aware of the health risks that come with working outdoors during the summer months,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Extreme temperatures put Laborers at risk for dehydration and heat stress, while the sun beating down overhead can be responsible for painful sunburn and the increased risk of skin cancer.”
The LHSFNA’s annual Sun Sense Campaign reminds LIUNA members to protect their skin by using sunscreen, neck flaps and other products. But one area of the body that’s often shortchanged when it comes to preventing damage from the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays is the eyes.
The Dangers of Ultraviolet Radiation
Invisible to the naked eye, ultraviolet radiation reaches the Earth as part of sunlight. There are three types of UV rays: ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet C (UVC). Both UVA and UVB rays penetrate the skin, causing sunburn, premature skin aging and long-term effects such as skin cancer. UV radiation is also given off by artificial sources such as tanning beds, welding machines and lasers.
When it comes to the eyes, UV radiation presents both short and long-term hazards. Being exposed to too much UV radiation in a short period of time can cause photokeratitis, a temporary condition similar to “sunburn of the eyes” that causes red eyes, extreme sensitivity to light, tears and the feeling that your eyes have grit or sand in them. Photokeratitis is also known as “snow blindness” or “welder’s eye.” Fortunately, it is usually temporary and rarely causes permanent damage to the eyes.
Because the skin around the eyelid is too thin to prevent UV radiation from entering the eyes, long-term exposure to UV radiation causes damage to the lens, retina and cornea. Over time, this exposure contributes to permanent vision loss and is believed to greatly increase the chances for developing cataracts and macular degeneration later in life. Long-term exposure to UV radiation is also known to contribute to the following conditions:
- Eyelid skin cancers: Basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma make up 5-10 percent of all skin cancer.
- Intraocular melanoma: The most common eye cancer in adults, its symptoms include blurred vision and a change in the shape of the pupil.
- Conjunctival cancers: Melanomas of the conjunctiva, the protective membrane covering the outside of the eye and the inside of the eyelids, may be more common in people with atypical mole syndrome. People with skin melanomas or atypical moles should have yearly ophthalmologic evaluations.
- Pinguecula and pterygium: These two types of non-cancerous growths on the eyes cause irritation, inflammation and distorted vision.
The following factors affect the amount of potential UVA/UVB rays your eyes are exposed to:
- Location: UV levels are stronger closer to the Equator and at high altitudes.
- Surroundings: Reflective surfaces such as snow and sand increase UV exposure, as do wide open areas where rays aren’t blocked by buildings and other objects.
- Time of day: UV levels are strongest during the middle of the day, typically between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
- Medications: Some medications can increase the body’s sensitivity to UV radiation.
Protecting Your Eyes from the Sun
Fortunately, protecting your eyes from UV radiation is even easier than remembering to put on sunscreen to protect your skin. Besides wearing a wide-brimmed hat that shades your eyes from the sun, you should wear sunglasses year-round when outdoors.
Follow these tips to ensure you pick the right pair of sunglasses:
- Look for sunglasses that block 99-100 percent of both UVA/UVB rays and meet ANSI Z80.3 requirements.
- Find lenses with UV 400 protection, which block even the shortest UV rays.
- Darker lenses don’t offer additional UV protection, so choose a tint that doesn’t distort colors such as those in traffic signals.
- Choose larger lenses or frames that wrap around the head for additional UV protection.
- Consider lenses made from polycarbonate or Trivex® if you participate in sports or work outdoors, as this material provides the most impact resistance.
- To prevent light from hitting your eyes from overhead, choose sunglasses that fit close to your face around the brow area, but not so close that your eyelashes are hitting the lenses.
- Ask an eye care professional to test your sunglasses if you’re not sure what level of UV protection they offer.
- Wear sunglasses even if you already wear contacts offering UV protection to ensure safety for the other parts of your eye.