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Are Special-Effects Lenses Dangerous?

Eye care: Some specialists regard the novelty as potentially harmful if used improperly. Others see them as a harmless, if expensive, fashion statement.


When a supplier dropped off a batch of new costume contact lenses last month at the Casey Eye Institute on the sprawling medical campus at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, optometrist Patrick Caroline made a prediction: They won't sell.

Caroline has since: sold about 40 pairs of the lenses, called WildEyes, which come in eight colors and designs, such as an ocher cat's eye, an aqua starburst and a black "pool shark" with a tiny black eight ball.

"People are just going gaga over these," said Caroline, whose customers are mostly medical, dental and nursing students willing to shell out at least $99 for the novelty of displaying eyeballs in colors and designs not found in nature.

"I expect they'll get even bigger the closer it gets to Halloween," added Caroline, who estimates that half of his customers don't need contact lenses and buy strictly for cosmetic purposes.

Yet the popularity of these lenses worries Caroline, who fears they will cause eye injuries and infections if wearers fail to disinfect or to clean them properly.

"I worry that people are only going to wear these lenses sporadically and in the meantime they'll let them sit in saline solution that isn't sterile and hasn't been changed in six months" and then will pop them in their eyes, he said. "These are not going to be used like other contact lenses that are cleaned and stored in fresh solution every day."

Caroline's concerns are echoed by ophthalmologists, optometrists and others who dispense contact lenses. Some of these eye specialists regard the lenses as a potentially dangerous fad and cite instances in which teenagers have shared lenses with their friends, a practice the manufacturer explicitly cautions against. Others see the lenses as a relatively harmless, if somewhat expensive, fashion statement.

Ann Foppe, a spokeswoman for lens manufacturer Wesley Jessen of Des Plaines, III., says the lenses as a "real fun product." Foppe said the lenses are safe as long as wearers take the same basic safety precautions required of all contact-lens wearers. "We haven't had any complaints about WildEyes," Foppe said.

But Terrence P. O'Brien, director of ocular infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, does not view them as benign.

"This is a dangerous trend," said O'Brien, who cites several cases of teenagers requiring emergency treatment for parasitic or bacterial eye infections contracted when they shared costume contact lenses. "We know that bacteria and microorganisms can bind to contact lenses."

"The risk goes beyond sharing," O'Brien added. "Contact lenses are medical devices, and if they are used for refractive purposes, there is still some risk [of infections or other problems] that may be justified. But it's one thing to assume a low risk when there is a need and a certain benefit, but not when the purpose is just cosmetic."

"Your eyes," said O'Brien, "are not the place to experiment." That view is shared by the 25,000-member American Academy of Ophthalmology.

"We've gotten calls from school nurses about kids trading these things in school bathrooms," said Michelle Stephens, a spokeswoman for the academy. Several months ago the San Francisco-based group warned patients about the dangers of spreading diseases by sharing the lenses and of the possibility that wearers may have reduced visual acuity and sensitivity to contrast. That could impair activities such as driving; particularly at night.

Foppe disputes that. "These lenses in no way affect vision," she said, because the pupil is clear and unobstructed. The pupil, the black hole at the center of the eye, varies in size and controls the amount of light entering the eye.

A spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration says the company has received no reports of problems with WildEyes lenses.

"We've evaluated them, and they're using approved colors and an approved process to add those colors," said spokeswoman Sharon Snider.

Since the February launch, Foppe said, WildEyes have sold well, particularly in Southern California, in New York, and Miami, cities with a large number of clubs that cater to teenagers and young adults.

Foppe declined to disclose sales figures but said sales have increased "tremendously"since the beginning of September when the company cut the price to retailers from $149 to $99 as part of a Halloween promotion.

"It's a little more mainstream and not as serious as getting your body pierced or getting a tattoo. You can take it out, and parents like it," she said.

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