Current Issue: April 5, 2013 Next Issue: September 2013
For 19 years Marisa Roy had brown eyes. Then one day she woke up, put a contact lens in each eye, looked in the mirror and saw a blue-eyed face.
She used tinted corrective contact lenses for two years including her first year at McGill University, changing her eyes brown to blue each time she wore them.
“It’s a type of self-expression and a way to play around with your identity,” she shares.
Roy gets her contacts from her optometrist, but it’s those who buy coloured lenses off the shelf that are at greater risk of eye infection, eye health professionals say.Cosmetic contact lenses cover the wearer's iris with a different colour or pattern.
The accessibility of these contacts needs to be limited, Conservative MP Patricia Davdson argues in her private member’s bill, C-313.
She wants tighter restrictions on the sale of off-the-shelf contact lenses by classifying them as the same as corrective contacts: a medical device under Canada’s Food and Drug Act. This would mean only those with medical licenses could distribute them.
Davidson has been working on tightening coloured contact regulation since 2006, when she first heard of the dangers, particularly for young people, while sitting on the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health.
Her constituents in Sarnia Lambton riding shared their first-hand experience with cosmetic lenses. “I found out that I actually knew people that had damage done from the unregulated lenses… They had scratching and scraping of the cornea from the lenses… Fortunately none of them were permanent damage,” she said.
In Canada, anyone can buy coloured contacts like the popular brand Clearly Contacts at retail stores or online at Turtle Contacts where you can buy a pair of ‘Triple Colour Sky Blue Contact Lenses’ for just $39.99.
Without sizing and instruction like Roy receives at her optometrist, users are at risk of eye problems. The risk is 12 times greater than those who take proper care, Dana Cooper, director of governmental relations and public policy at the Canadian Association of Optometrists says.
The eye is one of the most sensitive organs in the body and health problems can be severe like corneal scarring, corneal transplant, and blindness.
Slow road to legislation
The eye is one of the most sensitive organs in the body and health problems can be severe.
The Canadian Association of Optometrists, Opticians Association of Canada and the Canadian Ophthalmological Society support Bill C-313. But ideally, Cooper says all contact lenses should be treated the same: prescribed and dispensed by a health care professional.
“Contact lenses are a medical device and that’s how it’s viewed in many other countries in the world like the United States. There’s no doubt it is a medical device because it comes in contact with the eye,” says Dr. Desmond Fonn, founding director of the Centre for Contact Lens Research at the University of Waterloo.
Cooper says Bill C-313 and the similar motion Davidson proposed during the last session of Parliament are “common-sense legislation.” Davidson’s motion received unanimous party support but Parliament was prorogued before it was enacted.
The Canadian government has long recognized the risk of off-the-shelf contact lenses. In 2000, Health Canada issued a Public Health Advisory to warn of the dangers and in 2003, Health Canada commissioned a study that recommended stricter coloured contact law. Nothing happened.
“It’s not a priority for government,” Cooper says. He has been working on introducing stricter restrictions on colour lenses for more than 10 years with the Canadian Association of Optometrists.
Canada falls behind on eye healthContact lenses require safe handling and a great deal of care to protect the health of the eye.
When Dr. Lyndon Jones, current director of the Centre for Contact Lens Research, moved to Canada more than a decade ago to practice optometry, he was surprised.
“In the UK, you couldn’t possibly just walk into a convenience store and buy a pair of tinted lenses," says Jones. "When I came to Canada, I was absolutely shocked, the fact that it’s so easy to obtain tinted lenses. In my mind this legislation is way out of due.”
The European Union and the United States already have stricter controls on coloured contacts.
Both Cooper and Fonn appeared at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health in support of Bill C-313. The bill has received support from all parties.
Bill C-313 is a step in the right direction, but more is needed says Cooper.
“The prescribing and dispensing regulations lie at the provincial level - what we want to see is these non-corrective lenses to be included in the same regulatory environment as contact lenses,” she says.
Davidson expects her bill to go to third reading next week.
A personal choice
Marisa Roy wondered what she would look like with blue eyes instead of her brown ones. So when her optometrist offered her a tinted version of her prescription, she said yes.
But during the two years she wore them she faced hurtful comments. Through a Facebook application called Honesty Box, anonymous users would send Roy hate mail, “Really mean ones being like ‘Why do you wear blue contacts? Are you trying to look like a white person?’ I’m half Asian.”
But for Roy, her blue contacts were a way to express herself, “It was fun at first, like anything like that. It was a non-permanent type of change, you can just take them out whenever.”
After two years, she’s stopped wearing them and is happy with her brown eyes.
A risky accessory
Most contact lens use is by teenagers or for recreational use, says Dr. Lyndon Jones, current director of Centre for Contact Lens Research.
Designs like ‘Black Out’ or ‘White Hypno’ aren’t for daily wear. Risky behavior is associated with colour contact use.
“So maybe it’s Saturday night you’re going out to a party and then what do you do when you take them out? Some people put them in water or saline, not proper storage solution.”
Jones studies non-compliance (in medicine, a patient who does not follow a prescribed course of treatment) amongst contact lens users. One of the most common but risky mistakes is sleeping with your contacts in.
“Every time you sleep in your lenses, you increase your chances of getting an eye infection by 10 times,” says Jones.