First Responders: Say No to Cheap Sunglasses!


Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Before you go out and get yourself a pair of cheap sunglasses, read this first!

Did you know your EYES can get sunburned? Just thinking about it makes me squint. Though there are a lot of songs that have titles about sunglasses – enjoy the music in this article, an remember that July is National UV Awareness Month.

Before you even check the price tag, read the label. Do these glasses block 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays? If not, leave them on the rack. You want both of those blocked 99 to 100 percent. It’s not too much to expect your glasses to do that. Too much UV light can cause cataracts. It can also destroy the retina, the lining at the back of your eyes that helps you see clearly. It could even cause tissue to grow over your eyeball.

During the summer we put a lot of emphasis on protecting our skin from UV rays. But we do a much worse job of protecting our eyes. In a survey of more than 10,000 adults, the Vision Council found that only 39% of adults wear sunglasses when they are outside for two or more hours and only 14 percent are likely to protect their eyes at an outdoor sporting event. Less than half wear sunglasses at the beach! That’s going to mean a lot of squinting.

We understand the risk of skin cancer from the sun’s rays, but when it comes to our eyes, we tend to regard the sun as more of an inconvenience. In fact, protecting your eyes is essential, because exposure to bright sunlight increases the risk of developing cataracts, macular degeneration, growths on the eye and, yes, sunburn. UV damage to your eyes can occur in as little as 15 minutes — often without symptoms to let you know it’s occurred. And our eyes are at risk to UV rays all year round.

That risk increases for firefighters and police officers, because we spend a lot of time outdoors. We’re usually careful to wear eye protection when we’re extricating a patient from a vehicle or training on the range, but we need to start thinking about it for day-to-day activities, both on and off duty.

Following are a few tips from the American Academy of Ophthalmology on how you can start better protecting those peepers.

  • Get the right sunglasses. Our sunglasses selections are too often made for fashion rather than protection. Choose sunglasses that block 100 percent of UV-A rays and UV-B rays. If possible, get a wrap-around style so the sun’s rays can’t enter from the side. And take note: Price doesn’t dictate protection. Expensive sunglasses may sacrifice protection for fashion, while inexpensive lenses that protect fully can be found at your neighborhood Target or Walmart. So, go get yourself some cheap sunglasses! (Just avoid any mirrored lenses, as many public safety agencies forbid them.)
  • Add a hat. A broad-brimmed hat provides additional eye protection. As first responders we have personal protective equipment and uniform standards we must follow, but there are lots of times when a ball cap or other hat is appropriate. (If your agency’s policy doesn’t specify whether a hat is allowed, check with your supervisor. It’s possible a policy update is needed!)
  • Don’t be fooled by clouds. Just as you can burn when it’s cloudy, sun damage to your eyes can occur when the sun’s not out, too. Wear your sunglasses anytime you’re outside during the day (no need to wear your sunglasses at night).
  • Never look directly at the sun. Catch yourself staring at the sun? Looking directly at the sun at any time, including during an eclipse, can damage your retinas.
  • Eat healthy! Taking care of your eyes means watching what you eat, too. Antioxidants protect your eyes from sun damage and air pollution. And it’s not just carrots, although that’s a great place to start. Incorporate fruits and vegetables such as pumpkin, sweet potato, spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, broccoli, kiwi, grapes, grapefruit, strawberries, oranges and green peppers. And don’t forget nuts and seeds such as sunflower seeds, almonds and pecans. Finally, boost your omega-3 fatty acid intake by eating salmon, sardines, halibut and tuna.

But if you’re having trouble remembering all that, just remember this: Things are going great, they’re only getting better … You’re future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades!

About Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif.  Sam also serves as Executive Vice President of Fire Operations at CORDICO INC.