It seems like every time there is a heat wave or a major snowstorm, climate change is blamed for the weather event. Still, when it comes to climate change, it isn’t just extremes in weather that have people worried. Eyes can be affected by climate change, especially since the cornea, eyelid, sclera and the lens are exposed to the elements. So, changes in the environment can affect eye health and vision.
At a recent National Institutes of Health symposium on the health consequences of climate change, Sheila West, Ph.D., vice chair for research at the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University spoke about how drier conditions can worsen the symptoms in those prone to dry eye. “As we see these areas [of drought] spread we are liable to see people who are prone to dry eye, but who may not be symptomatic, go on to develop symptoms,” West said.
Another consequence of climate change is an increase of airborne particles that irritate the eye. While air pollution has been blamed for an increase in respiratory conditions, it has also been shown to play a role in eye disease. Recently Beijing issued a “red alert” due to the high levels of smog. The air quality index in the city was 250 for the week of December 8, 2015. For comparison, the air quality index in Los Angeles during that week was 76. Air of Beijing’s quality in not only irritates throats and lungs, it irritates eyes and can lead to conditions such as chronic blepharitis.
It isn’t just particles in the air that can harm the eye. UV radiation due to ozone depletion is a cause of cataracts. According to the World Health Organization, 5 percent of the 18 million who have cataracts had their cataracts develop as a result of UV radiation. UVA light stimulates the production of oxygen-free radicals that are responsible for clouding the eye’s lens. UV radiation can also play a part in the development of age related macular degeneration.
Still, before you hide under the covers because of pollution and the shrinking ozone layer, steps are being taken to combat pollution. In the U.S. the Clean Power Plan works to reduce power plan emissions of carbon dioxide by 32 percent by 2030. Also many countries gathered in Paris recently to discuss ways they reduce pollution and combat climate change. As for UV radiation, things as simple as wearing sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat can reduce a person’s exposure to harmful radiation.
Regulations and preventative measures don’t seem like much in comparison to the enormity of the problem. Still, climate change didn’t occur overnight, so it is these so-called little things that are improving eye health and the environment.