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Cornea Cope Eee! Ah!


Claim:   A man was blinded for life when his contact lenses fused to his eyes while he was barbecuing.

FALSE

Examples:

[Collected via Facebook, 2014]

A 21 year old girl had worn a pair of contact lenses during a barbecue party. While barbecuing she stared at the fire charcoals continuously for 2-3 minutes.

After a few minutes, She started to scream for help and moved rapidly, jumping up and down. No one in the party knew why she was doing this. Then she was admitted into the hospital, and the doctor said she'll be blind permanently because of the contact lenses that she had worn.



Contact lenses are made by plastics, and the heat from the charcoal melted her contact lenses.

DO NOT WEAR CONTACT LENSES WHERE OVERHEATING and FLAMES are concerned or while COOKING!
 

[Brunvand, 1987]

An electrical worker, wearing contact lenses, throws a faulty switch. The result is an arc that generates microwaves, instantly drying up the fluid in his eyes and bonding the lenses to his corneas. The worker tries to take out the contacts, but the corneas come with them, and he is blinded for life.

A welder, also wearing contacts, opens his face shield and accidentally touches his welding rod to the metal he is working on. The result is a similar arc, with the same disastrous results.
 

[Collected on the Internet, 1994]

In my chemistry lab, we had to sign a form saying we won't wear contact lenses in the lab. According to the lab professor, a student was wearing soft contact lenses and working with formaldehyde. He went home and took out his contact lenses because they were hurting his eyes. The formaldehyde had seeped in through the gas-porous lenses and glued them to his eyes. He ended up pulling out his cornea.
 

[Brunvand, 1987]

About six years ago when I was shopping for a sun lamp, the appliance salesman emphasized the reliable timer on one model. Then he recounted as a fact that a woman using a lesser product fell asleep and had her contact lenses fused to her eyeballs.
 

[Collected via e-mail, October 2009]

A 21 year old guy, he used to wear a pair of contact lenses, during a barbecue party. While barbecuing he stared at the fire charcoals continuously for 2-3 minutes. After a few minutes, he started to scream for help and moved rapidly, jumping up and down. No one in the party knew why he was doing this. Then he was admitted into the hospital, and the doctor said he'll be blind permanently because of the contact lenses that he had worn. Contact lenses are made by plastics, and the heat from the charcoal melted his contact lenses. DO NOT WEAR CONTACT LENSES WHERE OVERHEATING AND FLAMES ARE CONCERNED ... OR WHILE COOKING!
 

Origins:   It's a rare contact lens wearer who has never experienced at least a few fleeting moments of anxiety when removing his lenses. Fishing about in one's eye after a stubborn lens raises momentary concerns that maybe one of these days that little bit of technological wizardry will become well and truly stuck there, forever bonded to the eyeball. Thought is also given to the possibility that you might inadvertently pull out your cornea instead of the lens that sits upon it.

It's those irrational fears these legends speak to; we worry that no matter how well the technology has worked for others, one of these days it's going to fail for us and we will, in effect, pull our eyes out.

When held up to the light and examined, those anxieties seems pretty baseless. But fearful creatures that we are, we're seldom content to leave well enough alone — we have apprehensions that need to be expressed, no matter how silly they are. Misgivings are thus aired through a series of contact lens mishap legends governed by seemingly plausible scenarios wherein one potentially could tear off one's cornea. The "freak accident" element is introduced into the mix, or possibly the "dangerous chemical combination," because these work to elevate what was impossible (yet feared) into the realm of the seemingly
possible.

For many, their first contact with the 'hapless welder' version of the scare came from a badly blurred photocopied memo warning against the dangers of engaging in welding while wearing contact lenses. Often this memo began with the headline "TWO RECENT INCIDENTS HAVE UNCOVERED A PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN PHENOMENON OF SERIOUS GRAVITY." (Modern versions have replaced welding with barbecuing as the activity fraught with danger for contact wearers.)

There were no such incidents demonstrating a "previously unknown phenomenon of serious gravity" affecting those who welded or barbecued while wearing contact lenses, but the memo was often taken at face value, even by respected news outlets. The American Academy of Ophthalmology has traced those rumors back as far as 1967, when a worker for Bethlehem Steel and a welder for United Parcel Service were said to be the victims. Not only haven't such accidents happened, nearly every reputable medical and industrial source in the field says they couldn't happen.

Dr. Barry M. Weiner, a physician at the University of Maryland Hospital, responded to a local variant of the rumor: "It is a physical impossibility to dry up the fluid in your eyes. You'd have to stick your head in a blast furnace to do that. And removing your cornea would be like pulling off your ear."

Yet there may be a grain of truth in the welder story anyway, even if it has been distorted almost beyond recognition. According to the sci.chem FAQ:
[A] Bethlehem Steel welder in Baltimore who, on the 26 July 1967, accidentally caused an arc flash that hit his hard contact lens. He waited until the next day to report eyesight problems, and an ophthalmologist found severe ulcerations on his cornea, but attributed the damage to the wearing of the hard lenses for 17-18 hours after the incident. The cornea healed completely in a few days, with no permanent vision loss, and investigators found no link between the damage and the arc flash, but the myth of the welder removing parts of the cornea with the lens, and consequently being permanently blinded, continues.
Unlike the legend, the worst of the man's injury came from his not seeking treatment in a timely manner, not the horrific run-in with the arc. The fellow also made a complete recovery — a far cry from the "blinded for life!" element of the legend.

As for cautions against wearing contacts in a chemical lab environment, these have nothing to do with mysterious gasses bonding the lenses to the corneas (as suggested in one of the examples quoted above) but rather speak to the always-present danger of a chemical splash to the eyes. When such an accident occurs, it is imperative to rinse the substance from the eyes immediately. The presence of contact lenses will interfere with that, sometimes even trapping some of the chemical to the eye under the edge of the lens.

Although the case had nothing to do with contact lenses, in January 2014 the New England Journal of Medicine published a clinical report ("Ocular Manifestation of Electrical Burn") on an incident in which a 42-year-old California electrician was left legally blind with star-shaped cataracts in his eyes after suffering burns from a 14,000-volt shock to his shoulder:


A 42-year-old male electrician presented to the eye clinic with decreasing vision 4 weeks after an electrical burn of 14,000 V to the left shoulder. His vision in both eyes was limited to perception of hand motions, with an intraocular pressure of 14 mm Hg in each eye. Slit-lamp examination showed bilateral stellate anterior subcapsular opacities of the lens. Dilated funduscopic examination showed scattered cotton-wool spots and bilateral optic-nerve pallor, which was greatest in the left eye. Four months after the injury, the patient underwent cataract extraction and implantation of an intraocular lens, which was followed by improvement in visual acuity to 20/70 in the right eye and 20/400 in the left eye. Two years after the injury, a retinal detachment developed in the left eye, and the patient underwent repair. At a 10-year follow-up visit, the patient's visual acuity was 20/100 in the right eye, but in the left eye he could only count fingers. There was bilateral optic atrophy with widespread macular pigment disruption. Although the patient was legally blind, he was able to read with the use of low-vision aids and was able to independently commute on public transportation. When lenticular opacities are the sole manifestations of electrical injury, cataract extraction is expected to produce a functional outcome. However, with concurrent damage to the optic nerve and retina, complete visual rehabilitation may be limited.
 

Sometimes our fear of contact lenses is expressed in a more direct, less technological form:
A drunk staggered into a Pennsylvania ER complaining of severe pain while trying to remove his contact lenses. He said that they would come out halfway, but they always popped back in. A nurse tried to help using a suction pump, but without success. Finally, a doctor examined him and discovered that the man did not have his contact lenses in at all. He had been trying to rip out the membrane of his cornea.
Barbara "blind drunk" Mikkelson

Additional information:
Safety hazard related to the use of contact lenses Safety Hazard Related to the Use of Contact Lenses
(Occupational Safety and Health Administration)
Last updated:   25 January 2014

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Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.   ISBN 0-393-30321-7   (pp. 157-160).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Mexican Pet.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.   ISBN 0-393-30542-2   (pp. 165-166).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good to Be True.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 402-404).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.
    Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (p. 107).

    Morgan, Hal and Kerry Tucker.   More Rumor!
    New York: Penguin Books, 1987.   ISBN 0-14-009720-1   (pp. 190-192).