One reason a total solar eclipse is so compelling is that it’s the one time humans can turn their soft, sensitive eyes to the sky and gaze directly upon the celestial body that gives life to us and everything else on Earth.
But that’s only for two minutes or so, and only for the people who will be in the so-called “path of totality” that cuts across the US. In the time leading up to and following those few moments on August 21, and for everyone else in the US, there will be many more minutes of partial eclipse, which require specialized, ultra-dark glasses to see safely.
As August 21 nears, eclipse-chasers are realizing that if they want to see the sun disappear behind the moon, they can’t just wake up on the day of the astronomical event and step outside their homes. They’ll need solar eclipse glasses. And so, in the past few months, a cottage industry has sprung up to accommodate this market need. The problem is that many of these newly arrived sellers of solar eclipse glasses are fly-by-night manufacturers looking to turn a quick profit by selling subpar and potentially dangerous goods to unsuspecting Americans.
The first stop for most seeking a pair of eclipse glasses is likely to be Amazon, where there are literally thousands of listings for the devices, ranging in materials from cardboard to bronze. I, too, went on Amazon to scout out a pair. I picked more or less at random: I chose a cheap pack of 10 cardboard glasses with five different designs, at least two of which were not garishly jingoistic. About a week after I bought them, I had a thought: Maybe I should double-check to make sure they met safety standards set by the scientific community. Next stop: NASA.
NASA, of course, has a website dedicated to the 2017 eclipse, and on it, they have a section dedicated to eclipse-viewing safety. The site says that eclipse-viewing glasses must meet a few basic criteria:
- Have ISO 12312-2 certification (that is, having been certified as passing a particular set of tests set forth by the International Organization of Standardization)
- Have the manufacturer’s name and address printed somewhere on the product
- Not be older than three years, or have scratched or wrinkled lenses
NASA also names a few trustworthy lens brands: “Our partner the American Astronomical Society has verified that these five manufacturers are making eclipse glasses and handheld solar viewers that meet the ISO 12312-2 international standard for such products: American Paper Optics, Baader Planetarium (AstroSolar Silver/Gold film only), Rainbow Symphony, Thousand Oaks Optical, and TSE 17.”
I checked the ones I’d bought. ISO 12312-2: check. Manufacturer: American Paper Optics. Did I happen to roll a seven, or were most of the products on Amazon safe by NASA standards? I decided to check.
With the help of a handful of other Quartz reporters, I went through the first 140 listings that show up when you search Amazon for “eclipse glasses.” (Note that because of Amazon’s algorithms, not all of us saw the exact same listings in the exact same order. However, we believe that, combined, these searches provide a pretty good picture of what the average Amazon user might see.) Our search results included 25 “Sponsored” listings, 10 “Best Sellers,” and one “Bill Nye Exclusive.” Only 16 claimed to use lenses manufactured by one of the NASA-approved companies. Four of the bestsellers and the Bill Nye Exclusives are listed as manufactured by American Paper Optics; none of the rest of the bestsellers, and none of the 25 sponsored listings, were made by a NASA-approved company. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unsafe—but it does raise questions about who exactly is making these devices, and whether they’re producing them with safety in mind.
Andrew Lunt says he predicted that huge demand for eclipse glasses would lead to some problem or another. His Tucson, Arizona-based business Lunt Solar Systems, through their sister company TSE17, sold eclipse glasses in Germany leading up to the solar eclipse there in 2015. “In Germany, people were rioting in the street because the government mandated people without glasses had to stay indoors,” Lunt recalls.
He says that two years ago, he tried to gin up concern about the possibility that unmet demand could lead to similar unrest, or create openings for opportunists to swoop in, when the 2017 eclipse made its path across the US. But no one was interested. “You only know if you’ve been through it,” he says.