Eclipse spurs run on safety glasses in Detroit area

Karen Bouffard, and Stephanie Steinberg

The cosmos must align for those wanting to be eyewitnesses to Monday’s rare solar eclipse.

Translation: You’ll need to find the special space shades first.

Like fidget spinners or flu shots, solar eclipse glasses have become scarce just as demand has reached a frenzy less than a week from Monday’s event. The glasses block ultraviolet, visible and infrared radiation, and, according to NASA, allow people to gaze at the sun for long durations without harming their vision.

Heather Westphal of Grosse Ile has been perusing websites for eclipse glasses for a month or so but Tuesday morning started shopping for them locally.

“I called for three hours. One call after another,” she said. “The last place I called was Kroger on the island; they said they never got any, but she said you should call Gibraltar because they’re bigger.”

The Kroger in Gibraltar had just received a shipment; she was there by noon Thursday to buy several pairs for family and friends at $2 apiece.

The first total eclipse of the sun to span coast to coast across the U.S. mainland in almost a century will be visible Monday. Over three hours starting at 1 p.m. in Michigan, the moon will slowly pass across the sun, blocking all or part of it from the gaze of Earthlings. The eclipse will peak at about 2:30 p.m. when as much as 80 percent of the sun will be covered for Michigan viewers.

A check around Metro Detroit on Tuesday revealed the Walmart in Commerce Township was out and swamped with inquiries. None were for purchase at Kroger locations in Hazel Park and Dearborn. The Warby Parker on Woodward in Detroit already gave out its supply of 1,500 to customers but hopes to have more Saturday.

Erin Jackson, a department manager at the Toys “R” Us in Livonia, said Tuesday that location sold out two days ago: “We’ve had calls after calls and also people coming in.”

Jackson missed out on her chance to grab a pair, “but I heard 7-Eleven is selling them. So when I get off work, I’m going to 7-Eleven,” she said Tuesday.

The demand for glasses has factories churning — one manufacturer, Tennessee-based American Paper Optics, has said it wants to crank out 100 million pairs — and prices spiking.

A five-pack offered last week on Amazon for $19.95 was going for $39.95 Monday. On eBay, one vendor wanted $24.95 for a single pair — and within hours had sold more than 100.

The glasses are critical because it’s never safe to look directly at the sun — even during an eclipse, said Dr. Barbara Kuczynski, an ophthalmologist at Beaumont Royal Oak Hospital.

“It kind of burns the retina,” Kuczynski said. “It effects the cells in your main area of vision (the macula), and it can cause permanent damage to that area.”

Emily Rauscher, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan Astronomy Department, said even the small crescent of sun that peeks out from behind the moon during a solar eclipse could damage the eyes.

“Any part of the sun’s surfaced that you see is far brighter than our eyes are meant to look at,” Rauscher said. “Even a little bit of the sun is brighter than the filament of an incandescent light bulb, which you also shouldn’t look at.”

Rauscher added glasses that are simply dark won’t protect eyes from the ravages of the sun.

“The thing to be careful about is to get them from a reputable source because we have heard about people selling knock-off glasses, which don’t have the right lenses to safely protect your eyes,” Rauscher said. “You shouldn’t be able to see anything through the eclipse process aside from the sun.”

UnitedHealthcare, which has 850,000 members in Michigan, has prepared by donating 10,000 pairs of eclipse-viewing glasses to Boys & Girls Clubs across the nation, said Dr. Linda Chous, chief eye care officer for the health insurer.

“Looking at the sun can cause complications — anything from a sunburn on the front of the eye, known as solar keratitis, to retinal burns in the back of the eye that can be permanent and lead to blindness,” Chous said. “The sun actually can burn a hole in the retina and destroy that area. The retina is the camera film inside the eye that helps you to see, and if that camera film is destroyed, you can’t see — so you can have a black spot in your vision for the rest of your life.”

The rare spectacle can be viewed safely through certified eclipse-viewing glasses, but Chous also noted recent reports that fakes are being sold.

The American Astronomical Society has a webpage on how to check if your eclipse-viewing glasses are safe. The site provides a link to a list of legitimate vendors.

Mike Kentrianakis of the American Astronomical Society said glasses that have the approval of the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, have proven to be safe and effective. The problem is that some opportunists are selling counterfeit glasses, ISO logo and all.

He said the best way to be sure that eclipse glasses work properly is to try them on and look at a bright light — everything other than the light should be barely visible.

“If you can see faint florescent lights in your home or make out any details indoors, or even outdoors (in sunlight), they’re no good,” he said.

Researchers have gauged the toll of eye injuries from previous eclipses and reached varying conclusions. One study found that 1 in 7 people who sustained eye injuries during a 1999 eclipse claimed to have used safety glasses or welder’s masks.

“No additional information about these devices was provided, so it is likely that some or all of them were homemade, not certified as safe, or otherwise deficient,” the society said in a summation of the research. “In any case, all patients in this study recovered their vision after several weeks.”

At the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, a limited supply of eclipse glasses will be available for purchase for $3.99 on a first come, first serve basis Monday.

The shop sold 700 glasses the last few weeks, and sold its last pair Tuesday, said Cranbrook Institute of Science membership director Stephen Pagnani.

“We’re trying to get more, but it’s tricky,” he said.

The Chicago Tribune contributed.