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A cautionary contact lens tale


The Toronto Star, November 25, 2011

Barbara Turnbull


Jason Dodds thought the Angelic Blue cosmetic contact lenses he bought online at would be great for Halloween.

He supplied his prescription and credit card information and the lenses arrived a week later.

After wearing them for about four hours, his left eye started watering. It felt as though the contact was suctioned on his eyeball, says Dodds, who was then 18. When he removed the lens he felt excruciating pain and couldn’t see.

No wonder. Removing the lens peeled off the epithelial surface of the cornea, says his optometrist, Dr. Fiona Soong.

“He was lucky not to have lost his vision,” she says. The extent of the abrasion in the central part of the eye could have resulted in scar tissue and permanently affected his vision. “All contact lenses are medical devices,” says Soong, who doesn’t think any should be sold online, without prescription and without regulation.

Dodds’ corneal abrasion took more than two months to heal. Now, three years later, he says the experience has permanently zapped his confidence in contacts.

And it explains why eye doctors are adamantly opposed to the unregulated selling of lenses online.

Eyeballs come in different shapes and sizes; lenses have varying curvatures, says Dr. Sheldon Salaba, president of the Ontario Association of Optometrists. If contact lenses do not fit properly and don’t move correctly, the cornea will swell and weaken. From red eyes to blindness, “a whole host of complications can develop,” he says.

Another problem with purchasing contacts online is that it opens the door for consumers to self-prescribe, adjusting their own prescription, say, if their sight is suddenly a little blurry. It could be that the altered vision is a consequence of an eye condition unrelated to the lens, which is why optometrists say a professional assessment is essential.

The legalities of buying contact lenses online is murky. Health Canada has the mandate to classify items as medical devices. It is then up to the provinces to regulate them.

Prescription contact lenses were listed as medical devices in 1978. Every province, except British Columbia, requires a health professional to dispense glasses and contacts. And yet many people, in every province, find no difficulty purchasing contacts online.

Cosmetic lenses — which change the colour of the wearer’s eye or, say, have patterns, such as a star or cat’s eye but do not correct vision — are not currently regarded as medical devices. That could change. A private member’s bill, supported by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, was introduced in October to include cosmetic lenses as medical devices. Presentations on the proposed legislation, which has broad support from MPs, are scheduled early next year.