Eyes take a lot of abuse at the office. Between staring at a computer screen from the time the workday begins and staring at a tiny Blackberry when running between meetings, it’s a wonder any office worker out there isn’t staring at the world through Coke-bottle-thick glasses.
Now, office workers have one more vision killer to worry about: overhead lighting. Working all day long under bright fluorescent bulbs may cause permanent damage to your eyesight, according to a recent study from researchers at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia.
The researchers found that working under the bright fluorescent lights usually used in office buildings, schools, and other commercial spaces for 40 or more hours a week increases the risk of cataracts and another eye disease known as pterygia, in which a non-cancerous tissue grows on the white portion of the eye and may eventually block your vision. The culprit? UV radiation. “Cool” or “bright white” fluorescents—the kind that are often described as resembling daylight and emit a slightly bluish hue—emit UV light equal to or stronger than that from sunlight, and that type of light can, as noted in the study, cause “irreparable damage to the eye.”
More than half of Americans have cataracts by the time they’re 80 years old, while just 17 percent do so at age 40. The condition becomes more common with age, but continuous, lifetime exposure to cool white fluorescent lights could cause cataracts to develop earlier. Study coauthor Helen Walls, PhD, research fellow at the ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, notes that “exposure to ‘cool white’ fluorescents for 45 hours per week throughout your working life may increase your risk of getting cataracts at age 50 by between 2 and 12 percent.”
“Such an effect is relatively small at an individual level,” Walls says, “but if you put this risk across the population, there is an significant increase in the cases of eye diseases.”
So should you take to wearing UV-blocking sunglasses on the job? If you work outdoors, absolutely. And wear a hat, too. Sunlight produces intense radiation, and those whose work keeps them outdoors, such as fisherman and farmers, have higher rates of cataracts and macular degeneration (damage to the retina that harms vision) than indoor workers, according to previous studies.
Shades might look cool in some offices, but most managers want to be sure you’re awake at your desk. Here are useful steps you can take:
• If you’re near a window, turn off the overhead fluorescents and let in some sunlight. Many office windows have low-e coating, which will block most of the UV radiation from sunlight.
• If you aren’t near a window, turn off the fluorescent overhead, and bring in a lamp with an incandescent or “warm white” CFL. Despite numerous reports to the contrary, incandescent bulbs are not being banned by the 2007 energy bill signed into law by President George Bush; the law requires only that they become 30 percent more efficient by the end of this year. If you do prefer to use energy-saving bulbs, warm white CFLs mimic the warm glow of incandescent bulbs but don’t emit UV radiation in the same eye-damaging range as cool white bulbs.
• At home, avoid installing cool white fluorescent bulbs whenever possible. One concern the authors of this study raise is that as more and more people replace incandescent bulbs at home, we’ll increase the time we’re exposed to the high-energy UV radiation put out by the brightest fluorescents—often just the bulbs we choose for reading and other projects that require bright light. For task lighting, opt instead for halogen bulbs. They’re less efficient than CFLs (though more efficient than incandescent bulbs), but they don’t emit UV radiation.
• Wherever you can, make use of natural lighting. You can hang mirrors to reflect light, apply a fresh coat of soft white paint to brighten spaces, and open blinds to pull outdoor light into your rooms.
• Finally, quit smoking. Given all the other health benefits that knocking off nicotine will provide, delaying the onset of cataracts is certainly a bonus, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. It’s also good idea to avoid drinking to excess; eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables provides some protection, as well.