Can the Heat From a Barbecue Melt Contact Lenses?

About the urban legend

Family BBQing in backyard
Getty Images/​Michael H 

Do you have to worry about wearing contact lenses when you are grilling in your backyard? A viral email and social media posting have been alarming people since 2002, cropping up in slightly different forms and on different networks for more than a dozen years. You may receive a similar warning from a friend or relative. But you don't have to forward or repost it; experts say there is no hazard. See an example to compare with any you receive.

  • Description: Viral text / Forwarded email
  • Circulating since: 2002
  • Status: False (details below)

Facebook Example of Barbecue Contact Lens Warning

As shared on Facebook, July 28, 2013

IMPORTANT INFORMATION: MUST SHARE

A 21 year old girl had worn a pair of contact lenses during a barbecue party. While barbecuing, she stared at the fire charcoals continuously for 2 to 3 minutes.

After a few minutes, she started to scream for help and moved rapidly, jumping up and down. No one in the party knew why she was doing this? Then when she was admitted into the hospital, the doctor said she'll be blind permanently because of the contact lenses that she had worn.

Contact lenses are made out of plastics, and the heat from the charcoal melted her contact lenses.

DO NOT WEAR CONTACT LENSES WHERE OVERHEATING and FLAMES are concerned....
or while COOKING...!

Friends if u feel the information is important, please SHARE this message to all your near & dear ones who use contact lens !!

Analysis of the Contact Lens Barbecue Warning

With the exception of a few minor revisions over time, the wording of this perennially circulating text hasn't changed since it originally appeared on the Internet in 2002. No names are divulged, nor, apart from the claim in the very earliest variant of the text that it took place in Malacca (a city in Malaysia), are we told where the barbecue incident supposedly happened.

There's no good reason to suppose it did happen.

Experts Say Welding and Barbecuing Are Safe for Contact Lens Wearers

The general notion that plastic contact lenses can melt under extreme heat and become "fused" to your eyeballs is even older. It dates from the late 1960s when industrial safety warnings circulated in the wake of anecdotal reports claiming that welders had suffered severe cornea damage and blindness when their contacts were melted by the heat and/or radiation of electric arc flashes. Though baseless, those warnings continued to circulate well into the 1980s (see J.H. Brunvand, "The Choking Doberman and Other 'New' Urban Legends," W.W. Norton, 1984).

As noted in an American Welding Society fact sheet published in 2000, the arc flash rumor has been repeatedly debunked by medical and safety experts:

Since 1967, the American Welding Society has received reports concerning welders who have claimed to have had contact lenses fused to their eyes, either by the heat of the arc or by microwave radiation. Not one of these reports has been substantiated, and safety bulletins issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Safety Council (NSC) have all indicated such incidents could not possibly have occurred.

This echoes the conclusion reached in a 1995 publication of the American Chemical Society which stated that "the basic laws of physics indicate that such a fusion could not have happened. Heat from a welding arc or electrical spark is not intense enough to dry up the eye's fluid, nor could a contact lens concentrate rays to intensify the heat."

The same reasoning applies to the claim that the heat from a backyard barbecue could melt someone's contact lenses. "It's nonsense," writes plainspoken optometrist Dr. Simon Kay. "If it was hot enough to melt his contact lenses, his face would be on fire!"

A 2012 article from Mulamoottil Eye Hospital & Research Center in Kerala, India summed up the entire case as follows:

  • Contact Lenses are sterilized by autoclaving up to 121 C
  • In most clinics, a dirty contact lens is cleaned and re-sterilized by placing in boiling water
  • A layer of tear fluid covers the contact lens when worn on our eyes
  • If BBQ heat can melt contact lens, shouldn't our tears boil first, as the boiling point of water is 100 degree C?
  • At heat levels that can melt contact lenses, the eye will be cooked and our skin will be cooked much before.
  • Welders use contact lenses. BBQ heat or any kitchen heat is not greater than during welding.

Bottom Line on the Urban Legend

This story about a contact lens melting in barbecue heat is just that: a story. If you get such an email or social media post, do not pass on. You can educate your friend or loved one as to the truth or simply ignore it.

Sources:

Can Contact Lenses Melt to a Person's Eyes from Looking in a Fire?
American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2013

Dangers of BBQ Whilst Wearing Contact Lenses
Specsavers Opticians UK, 27 March 2012

Keep It Safe: Contact Lens Wear
American Welding Society, July/August 2000

" The Choking Doberman and Other 'New' Urban Legends"
By Jan Harold Brunvand, W.W. Norton, 1984 (pp. 157-159)