Amazon hands out refunds for solar eclipse glasses that lack NASA’s approval

Solar viewing glasses
Agena Astro says that its solar eclipse glasses were made by a vendor on the American Astronomical Society’s list of reputable manufacturers, and that reports claiming they’re unsafe are “completely untrue and incorrect.” (Agena Astro Photo)

Amazon says it’s giving customers refunds for solar viewing glasses and filters that aren’t covered by the American Astronomical Society’s list of reputable vendors.

That twist sent some of the banned sellers scrambling to defend their products, with the Aug. 21 solar eclipse just a little more than a week away.

The brouhaha began a little less than two weeks ago, when the AAS reported that some vendors were selling eclipse glasses that didn’t block enough of the sun’s potentially eye-damaging radiation, and going so far as to print bogus certification labels on the glasses.

Experts have issued repeated warnings that observers shouldn’t gaze for long at the partially eclipsed sun without proper eye protections, due to the risk of serious eye injury. (Looking at a total solar eclipse with the naked eye is perfectly safe, however. And if you don’t plan to stare up at the sun at all, feel free to go out without special glasses.)

In response to the reports about bogus glasses, the AAS issued its list of reputable manufacturers and resellers, including well-known retailers such as 7-Eleven and Best Buy. NASA is pointing to the list in its guidance for eclipse watchers.

Even before the list came out, Amazon customers were registering complaints about third-party vendors whose products seemed to come up short.

This weekend, Amazon sent out refund notices to purchasers of products that the company deemed unsuitable for viewing the solar eclipse. Here’s the message I received about a pair of binocular filters I purchased several weeks ago:

“We’re writing to provide you with important safety information about the eclipse products you purchased on Amazon. …

“To protect your eyes when viewing the sun or an eclipse, NASA and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) advise you to use solar eclipse glasses or other solar filters from recommended manufacturers. Viewing the sun or an eclipse using any other glasses or filters could result in loss of vision or permanent blindness.

“Amazon has not received confirmation from the supplier of your order that they sourced the item from a recommended manufacturer.  We recommend that you DO NOT use this product to view the sun or the eclipse.

“Amazon is applying a balance for the purchase price to Your Account (please allow 7-10 days for this to appear on Your Account).  There is no need for you to return the product. …

“For more information about safely viewing a solar eclipse please see the NASA and AAS websites.

“If you purchased this item for someone else, please pass along this information to the recipient.”

Similar messages have been cited in reports from Portland’s KGW-TV, The Verge and Techcrunch.

The affected vendors’ products no longer appear on Amazon’s website.

One of the vendors hit by the refund notice, Manish Panjwan of Los Angeles-based Agena Astro, told KGW that he could lose out on the revenue from glasses that have already been sold. He said he could find himself with thousands of unsellable eclipse glasses sitting in Amazon’s warehouses when the eclipse is over.

Panjwan told KGW that his glasses were provided by two of the manufacturers on the AAS list, Thousand Oaks Optical and Baader Planetarium. And indeed, the latest version of the list includes Agena Astro as well.

In a statement posted to its website, Agena Astro said Amazon’s claims about its glasses were “completely untrue and incorrect.”

Another affected vendor, Mascotking, told The Verge that it was “submitting” to NASA and Amazon and would issue refunds to dissatisfied customers.

When the AAS posted its list of reputable vendors, it emphasized that the list wasn’t all-inclusive.

“If we don’t list a supplier, that doesn’t mean their products are unsafe,” AAS press officer Rick Fienberg said at the time. “It just means that we have no knowledge of them or that we haven’t convinced ourselves they’re safe.”

How do you know for sure if your eclipse glasses are safe? In its safety advisory, the AAS says the only things you should be able to see through a properly made solar filter are the sun itself or similarly bright objects, such as a bright halogen light bulb or an arc-welder’s torch.

For what it’s worth, my binocular solar filters meet that standard. Check out the advisory for additional eclipse safety tips.

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