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SAFE IN SHADES TO YOUR EYES, THE RIGHT SUNGLASSES MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE

If you thought the dark sunglasses in the hit movie "Men in Black" were just sci-fi silliness, think again.

They really can protect you from the dangers of outer space.

We're talking about the damaging rays of the sun, of course.

Just ask Simon Conway, the Western New York designer who came up with the now-famed sleek "Men in Black" Predator shades that shield the movie heroes from the powerful beam of memory-erasing "neuralyzers."

"Eyes are the windows of the soul, and what you put in front of them is important," says Conway, who recently displayed his glass-blowing art at Old Fort Niagara. "I have very light blue eyes that are most sensitive to light. I'm very uncomfortable without sunglasses."

MIB Agents "K" (Tommy Lee Jones) and "J" (Will Smith, who reportedly gets frantic when his get misplaced) wear their shades all the time. And sales of the Predators have tripled.

The actual "Men in Black" Ray-Ban sunglasses were made in Rochester by Bausch & Lomb Inc., and they provide 100 percent ultraviolet protection.

Concerned that overexposure to ultraviolet light can cause serious eye problems (not to mention aging skin), at the start of the '90s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began looking at the amount of protection various sunglasses provide against UV light.

UV exposure has been linked to retina damage and the development of cataracts, a permanent condition in which the eye lens becomes cloudy. In a study by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, an abnormally high incidence of cataracts was found among fishermen who had routinely gone without glare protection.

After having cataracts removed last year, John Cobb wears double sunglasses.

"The bright sun is wonderful, but it's murder on your eyes," says the Eggertsville resident.

For himself, Buffalo-area ophthalmologist Dr. Henry G. Wilamowski has a UV filter in his glasses to block out 100 percent of ultraviolet light. And he recommends a UV blocker for all his patients.

"I write it in for every prescription," he says. "The less UV light you get, the better off you are.

"Every time I go outside I have my sunglasses on. A good pair of sunglasses is going to be dark."

The sleek wrap-around frames of the Predators "cover the face effectively," says designer Conway. "It's a good feeling to make a product that people enjoy -- and is useful."

Fortune magazine named Ray-Ban sunglasses one of the best-designed products in the country. Ray-Ban was written into the comic book that "Men in Black" is based on.

But when Scott Woodward, director of Ray-Ban global image marketing, puts on his sunglasses at the beach, he's also thinking about protecting his eyes, promoting "good clear vision."

Conway says he urges his young children to wear their sunglasses.

Your eyes work harder under the glare of the sun, surf and sand. (It has been recommended that people wear sunglasses even under cloudy skies.) Your pupils contract and you have to strain to see well. Walking in bright sunlight every day can reduce your night vision by half.

Sunglasses that are only cosmetic give limited protection, and you should wear them only if you're in indirect sun. They block less than 60 percent of visible light, and not enough of the ultraviolet B (UV-B) and ultraviolet A (UV-A) rays. (Scientists divide rays according to wavelength.)

General-purpose lenses are a little better for outdoors, fighting off a significant percent of visible light. Special-purpose lenses are required for ski slopes and beaches, as ultraviolet rays penetrate even water, and are stronger in high altitudes. These lenses ward off almost all visible light, 99 percent of UV-B rays and most of UV-A rays.

The American Optometric Association puts an acceptance seal on lenses that block 99 to 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B. There are now magnetized shades that fit onto prescription eyeglasses frames, which are not inexpensive.

But price is not, states the optometric association, the only indication of protection. You can get a lousy lens in a fancy frame.

What to shop for?

Look for uniform tint. In gradient lenses, the association suggests making certain that the tint gradually lightens from top to bottom. Hold your shades at arm's length. Peer through them at a distant straight line. Then slowly move the lens across the line. If that edge distorts, you don't have a perfect lens.

Also, try those sunglasses on in front of a mirror. You don't want a flimsy frame. Can you see your eyes? Then the glasses are most likely not dark enough.

A good pair of sunglasses will also pay off in the Buffalo winter. There are temporary injuries such as photokeratitis, a kind of snow blindness that results in redness and tearing. The cornea can be irritated.

"When you have a lot of bright sun and snow -- typically in spring -- you're getting a double dose," Wilamowski said. "If you get ultraviolet light of enough intensity, it will actually damage the front surface of the eye -- the cornea. It'll kill off some of the cells. It feels like someone sandpapered your eye."

Though shades might not be able to do much for the summer's heat, as "Men in Black" Agents "K" and "J" know, at least they look cool.

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