and media coverage of baby-blinding by fluorescent nursery lights
Preemies go blind from nursery lights
and doctors deny the harm
"Neonatologists say the intensive care nurseries are recreating the environment of the womb, but somehow they forget that wombs don't come with lamps."
PMS members will remember the August 1988 Newsletter's front-page story "Hazards in the Nursery", our exposť of the devastating effects of harsh fluorescent light on the delicate eyes of premature babies. Well, once again an issue that PMS first brought to light has made its way into the media spotlight -- and rightly so.
Leading this consumer crusade to protect preemies from a blinding eye dystrophy are PMS member H. Peter Aleff and PMS President Charles Inlander. Aleff began the campaign after his son David, born prematurely, became blind from a disease called retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP.
Through PMS contacts Aleff's words of warning reached the August 9 New York Times op-ed page -- and from there it was on to more national media, including an article in Newsweek and appearances by Aleff on "Good Morning America," "USA Today: The Television Show," and ABC News' "The Health Show."
And the message goes out still: Anywhere from 500 to 2,500 premature infants are being blinded in the intensive care nursery each year, and a mountain of medical documentation indicates that excessive light is to blame.
That light, chiefly in the form of "deluxe cool white" fluorescent tubes and bilirubin lights (high-intensity lamps used to treat jaundice in newborns), is much too strong for the unprotected eyes of a preemie, Aleff says.
Many experts agree. One study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (August 15, 1985) disclosed how bright nursery lights and exposure to daylight cause a higher incidence of ROP. The book Optical Radiation and Visual Health (CRC Press, 1986) warned about the dangers of bilirubin light hitting the unprotected eyes of nonjaundiced infants.
These articles call for caution: As the author of the NEJM study said in a 1986 article in Pediatrics, until sufficient evidence makes it clear that current levels of light exposure are safe for premature infants, the prudent approach is to shade the infants' eyes from exposure to excess levels of light.
"Neonatologists say the intensive care nurseries are trying to recreate the environment of the womb," Aleff observes in his New York Times editorial,
What has the medical world been doing to address the correlation between light and ROP? Very little as yet. Most medical professionals deny the problem -- possibly because, in this era of litigation, docs don't want to admit that they've been making a huge mistake for years.
A clinical study is being planned to investigate preliminary findings from the NEJM study, with some preemies given eye patches or shaded goggles and others left unprotected. But while we wait for these results (and while babies in the study are deliberately exposed to the hazard), more infants go blind.
The tragedy here is that simple solutions can prevent the problem, Aleff says. Hospitals can replace fluorescent bulbs in the intensive care nursery with incandescent bulbs (or require that the fluorescent light be covered with filters to prevent ultraviolet and blue light from irradiating the retinas of infants) and fit isolettes with protective side shields. Hospitals can turn off the lights at night so that preemies experience a natural light and dark cycle.
The People's Medical Society -- with your help -- has been prodding state and federal regulators to make these simple changes to stop the blinding. PMS members who have joined our "Turn Off the Lights" campaign continue to bring this crisis to the attention of public officials, government agencies, and the national news media.
And we're making headway, forcing the wheels of government to get in gear. Last March Peter Aleff and Charles Inlander spoke before a technical advisory group organized by the State of New York Department of Health in response to the mountain of documentation Aleff sent them about ROP -- a testament to the power of the consumer.
(At the time this Newsletter went to press the group was still "studying" the problem and had not made a public statement.)
PMS sees a positive sign in the number of letters coming in from concerned consumers, medical practitioners, and scientists who offer much-needed support.
"It's time for action -- prompt action," says PMS President Inlander. "It's quite a comment on our times that the FDA pulls all Chilean fruit off the shelves on the suspicion of two slightly tainted grapes, but the medical profession does not react to a mountain of evidence that the fluorescent lamps in the intensive care nurseries are blinding babies every day."
The medical literature that links lighting and retinopathy of prematurity is vast; we don't have space in these pages to enumerate the sources. If you would like additional information, write to Peter Aleff at 2097 Cottonwood Drive, Vineland, NJ 08361. And tell him you 're a PMS member.
The above article by Charles Inlander was published in the December, 1989, issue of the People's Medical Society's newsletter.
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