AAS spokesman on Amazon recall, fake products, safe eclipse viewing

Dr. Rick Fienberg of the American Astronomical Society said Amazon’s eclipse glasses recall 'confused the good guys and bad guys.' 

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PORTLAND, Ore. – The man who created list of verified eclipse glasses for the American Astronomical Society has been even busier than he expected ahead of next week's solar eclipse.

AAS press secretary Dr. Rick Fienberg was thrown a curve ball a few weeks ago, along with the rest of the astronomy industry, when AAS learned that Amazon was selling solar eclipse glasses that didn’t meet industry standards.

For the past few days, Fienberg has been scrambling to update AAS guidelines, because some fake products have labels claiming the glasses have the proper ISO certification when they don’t. Other products claim to come from verified manufacturers, but instead are made by unknown companies.

Amazon issued a widespread recall that Fienberg said includes, in some form, every verified manufacturer or seller – meaning Amazon recalled perfectly safe glasses and solar filters, along with questionable products.  

Background: Amazon issues eclipse glasses recall

On Tuesday, Fienberg was fielding press phone calls from his home in Boston as he prepared to fly out to Madras, Oregon to lead a group of 150 eclipse watchers. Before he left, he talked to KGW about safe eclipse watching, the avalanche of fake glasses, and the Amazon recall, which he said “confused the good guys and bad guys.”

How did you make the AAS list of verified glasses?

“Until a few weeks ago, we were providing the following advice: Make sure you use a solar viewer that meets the ISO safety standard (ISO number 12312-2). Then, we started getting reports that people were ordering eclipse glasses online and they were showing up in the mail and didn’t match the pictures they were seeing online. In some cases, people looked at the sun and saw a blindingly bright image or an image that was so dark they could barely see the sun.

“We realized fake glasses were being sold online, mostly on Amazon. Sellers we’d never heard of, manufacturers that couldn’t be identified. In addition, some glasses say they’re from one manufacturer when they’re not.

“We changed our approach. Looking for a manufacturer or an ISO log isn’t a guarantee that the glasses are genuine. We had to say, 'We are going to create a list and we are going to put on that list every manufacturer and authorized dealer that is selling safe certified eclipse glasses.'”  

Note: Fienberg said you can know your eclipse glasses are safe if you verify both the manufacturer and seller. View AAS list of approved companies here.

Can you tell by looking at indoor light? If you can just see the filament in an incandescent bulb, does that mean the glasses are safe?

“There are a lot more bright light sources than there used to be. If you hold your iPhone up to your eclipse glasses you might see a very dim bit of LED shining through. You might even be able to see compact fluorescent bulb up close. It’s not the case that the only thing you can see through solar viewers is the sun. You shouldn’t panic over that.

“If you look up that the sun and it’s uncomfortably bright, then you know you have a bad filter. If it’s not, you only know it’s blocking enough visible light to give a comfortable view. You need to know where this filter came from.

“A lot of these glasses, when you look through them, the sun looks just fine. But you can’t tell by just looking whether the filter is safe. The filter has to block not only enough visible light but also UV and infrared radiation to protect your eyes from damage. Infrared radiation can cook your retina.”

How can people view the eclipse without glasses?

“There are numerous indirect ways to enjoy a partial solar eclipse. The simplest and, for children, the most fun way is by pinhole projection.

“Look at the shadows of a leafy tree. Those spaces will project pinhole images of the sun. It makes a nice photograph.

“Grab a spaghetti colander, take it outside. Look at the shadow of the spaghetti colander and you will see crescent projections from holes.

“Grab an index card and punch a tiny hole with a sharp pencil, and grab piece of white paper. Take those outside and stand with your back to sun. Look at shadow of index card against the white paper and there will be crescent sun projected by the pinhole.”

How do you think Amazon handled the glasses recall?

“Amazon helped create the problem we’re having right now because they allowed anybody to sell eclipse glasses on their website and claim they were safe, without actually verifying they were safe. Once it became clear to Amazon they had done that, they withdrew most of those sites from the store and wrote to the vendors and said please send us proof. Then they sent a subsequent [recall] email. I’m not sure that actual people paid very close attention to what they were doing.

“The first thing they confused is the good guys and the bad guys. I know of longtime manufacturers with genuinely proven ISO certified glasses that were told, ‘You can’t sell on Amazon anymore.’ That’s crazy.

“The second is, there are two types of solar filters: Eclipse glasses and aperture solar filters, meant to go over the front of binoculars or camera lenses. The ISO standard applies to direct viewing with your eyes. There is no formal standard for aperture solar filters. They rely in part on the glass in the optics to do some of the filtering. You can’t test aperture filters and pass the ISO standard. The small number of companies that make solar filters are able to stay in business because their filters work.

“Amazon screwed up. I’ve been telling them that for weeks and as the problem gets worse, the person there stopped responding to me. I think they’re overwhelmed. They know they screwed up. They’re trying to do the best they can. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Amazon responded to the recall with the following statement:

Safety is among our highest priorities. Out of an abundance of caution, we have proactively reached out to customers and provided refunds for eclipse glasses that may not comply with industry standards. We want customers to buy with confidence anytime they make a purchase on Amazon.com and eclipse glasses sold on Amazon.com are required to comply with the relevant ISO standard.

What’s next for these manufacturers and sellers?

“They’re losing money. I’m absolutely certain the total cost to legitimate manufactures and authorized dealers will be in the millions. They’ve been gearing up for this for two to three years and they went the extra mile to get their stuff properly tested, then you get some company in China sending glasses that say ‘Made in China.’

“I’m not a lawyer but I will tell you I have been wondering what the astronomy community is going to have to do in the aftermath of all of this to make sure nothing like this happens again. There are going to be back-to-back eclipses in 2023 and 2024. We don’t want to have to go through this again. How do you prevent such things from happening? You have to hold people accountable.

“We’re all going to be debriefing over the next few months. I suspect, at some level, some kind of legal ramifications of this insanity in the aftermath of the eclipse.”

How to prevent eye damage from the eclipse

Published August 16, 2017

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