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Halloween contact lenses get the evil eye from docs, health officials

As Halloween approaches, doctors are casting a jaundiced eye on the cheap, decorative contact lenses that put their patients' vision at risk.

Unwary party-goers use the colored lenses as costume accessories, giving them the slit-eyed look of a cat, the wide-eyed gaze of an animé character, or the glazed bloodshot appearance of the walking dead.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health warned last week that cosmetic lenses sold without a prescription are "dangerous," and advised retailers that by selling them they are breaking the law.

Doctors say it's no scare story.

"The complications can be quite serious," said Joel Silbert, professor of optometric medicine at Salus University in Elkins Park. "Is going blind worth it?"

Toxic chemicals can leach out of the lenses into the cornea, he said. Cheap materials can starve the eye of oxygen. And pigment applied to the surface of the lenses can scratch the outer cells of the cornea, leading to an infection called a corneal ulcer.

"You'll not only have a horrible, painful experience but you can also lose your vision permanently," said Silbert, who also serves as chief of the cornea and contact lens service at the Salus Eye Institute.

"My feeling is you should avoid them entirely."

Commonly purchased online, the lenses often are available during the Halloween season at beauty parlors, gas stations, flea markets , and novelty stores. The over-the-counter lenses typically cost between $25 and $60. Contact lenses, both corrective and cosmetic, are considered medical devices and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which forbids their sale without a prescription.

Federal prosecutors last year charged 10 California retailers in a criminal investigation dubbed  "Operation Fright Night" for selling the illegal lenses, some of which had been contaminated with dangerous bacteria.

"These products pose a serious danger to unsuspecting Halloween shoppers," said U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker in a news release at the time.

Last month, the owner of Candy Color Lenses, a major online retailer, pleaded guilty to importing and selling counterfeit and misbranded contacts to tens of thousands of customers around the country.  In addition, the Texas Attorney General's office announced it had settled with 21 San Antonio convenience stores for selling the novelty lenses without prescriptions.

According to the American Optometric Association, 16 percent of Americans have worn decorative contact lenses. A quarter of those, or more than 13 million people, bought them from an illegal source.

For people who want the uncanny look of patterned eyes, Silbert advises seeing an eye doctor. The total cost will be significantly higher, "but what's it worth to lose your sight?" he asked.

"If the lenses are suitable and approved by the FDA, the results can be beautiful," he said. "But a patient needs an examination and the lenses must be dispensed properly."