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Johns Hopkins Health - 5 Eye Health Questions for Sheila West, P.H.D.

Summer 2016
Issue No. 33

5 Eye Health Questions for Sheila West, P.H.D.

Date: July 7, 2016

How Climate Change Impacts Your Vision


Sheila West

The National Eye Institute recently asked Sheila West, Ph.D., vice chair for research at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, to take a look at how climate change may be impacting the health of our eyes. Here are some of her eye-opening findings—and what they mean for you.

1. Why should eye health be part of the climate change discussion?

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.

2. What do we know about UV radiation?

Prolonged exposure to UV radiation is linked to a greater risk of cataracts later in life. Depleting ozone levels increase the amount of UV radiation that reaches our eyes. The good news is that countries are making headway on reducing ozone-depleting substances.

3. What role do rising temperatures play?

When temperature increases in a region, the air also becomes 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.

4. What effect might air pollution have?

We’re also seeing an increase in naturally occurring forest fires due to dry conditions. These fires release airborne particles, which can cause eye irritation. Also, indoor air pollution, from coal or wood cooking fires, in third world countries is linked to chlamydial eye infections, which can scar the eye and impair vision.

5. How can we protect our eyes right now?

Wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat whenever you go outside. Hats alone can reduce UV exposure by up to 30 percent. We can’t offer the same type of protection against air pollution or arid temperatures. These areas require us to look at the impact that humans have on climate change.

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