How environmental changes such as UV radiation and air pollution are impacting our eyes

For all the discussion and debate about climate change, one aspect should concern all of us: its impact on eye health. The link between our eyes and the environment is clear to anyone who suffers from or treats ocular allergies. Environmental factors play a role in dry eye disease, as well.

But the impact of climate change poses a far greater risk to eye health than allergies and dry eye, reported the April 2017 edition of EyeWorld. Experts explain the issue below, and emphasize the importance of patient education in managing this growing threat to eye health.

Why eyes are especially at risk

The eye is a unique organ because it’s particularly vulnerable to environmental factors, Sue Lowe, O.D., said she tells her patients. “It’s only 22 mm long, but it’s susceptible to the air, to UV light, to everything in the environment.”

Because the eye is directly exposed to the environment, changes in UV radiation, air pollution, and dry conditions can affect eye health.

In a Q&A on the Johns Hopkins Medicine website, Sheila West, Ph.D., researcher at the Wilmer Eye Institute, noted, “Climate change has been linked to an increase in ultraviolet radiation, air pollution, and dry conditions on the planet’s surface. Because the surface of the eye is directly exposed to the environment every day, all of these changes can affect the eye, to varying degrees.”

West noted that rising temperatures cause the air to become drier. “We believe that drier air may lead to increased symptoms in people who are prone to dry eye. Currently, Americans spend 3.8 billion dollars annually to treat dry eye, so this is something we need to study.”

The National Eye Institute (NEI) also warns of the effect of climate change on the eye, reported the American Optometric Association (AOA), “specifically focusing on an increase of UV radiation and dry climate, leading patients already disposed to dry eye to worse outcomes.”

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Why prevention – and patient education – matter more than ever

Because many of the risk factors exacerbated by climate change can be prevented, patient education is increasingly important, Dr. Lowe and other eye doctors stated.

The World Health Organization (WHO) found that ozone depletion has a direct correlation with several eye diseases, primarily cataracts. UV exposure increases with loss of the ozone layer, and an estimated 20 percent of cataract cases are the direct result of UV radiation overexposure, according to WHO.

Experts estimate that by 2050, rising UV exposure will lead to as many as 200,000 additional cases of cataract – beyond the expected number associated with aging. West estimates that $1.1 billion will be spent on care and surgical treatment of these additional cases.

“But it’s not just cataracts we have to worry about with regard to climate change,” noted an article in the Better Vision Guide. “Macular degeneration, cancer of the cornea, photokeratitis, photoconjunctivitis and pterygium are just a few of the ocular disorders that can be caused by UV radiation overexposure.”

The good news, however, is that UV exposure is a controllable risk factor, points out the NEI. Wearing a hat can reduce UV exposure by 30 percent, and sunglasses can reduce exposure by nearly 100 percent.

Dr. Lowe tests patients’ sunglasses on a UV meter to see how much UV protection they really have. Patients should know that the cost of the sunglasses does not correlate to the amount of protection they offer. A $20 drugstore pair may offer complete UV protection, or they might not. “Some of those lenses are fine, and some are definitely not,” said Dr. Lowe. “I talk to all patients about that.”

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