Astronomer Rick Fienberg was suspicious of the eclipse viewing glasses that he recently bought as a "souvenir" at a store near his country home in New Hampshire that bore the name of American Paper Optics (APO), one of two companies that dominate the market.
For one thing, the filters weren't in the distinctive oval shape for which APO glasses are known. They were also black on both sides rather than being metal-coated on one side. Though Feinberg said he was "pretty darned sure they were fake," he was unable to convince the store's owner to take them off the shelves.
"The fact that I identified myself as an astronomer working for the American Astronomical Society didn't seem to register at all with the guy," he said, adding that he sent photos of the glasses to APO, which later confirmed they were counterfeit.
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To Fienberg, who oversaw the vetting of eclipse viewers for the American Astronomical Society (AAS), this was further evidence of a worrisome trend: Consumers may find it difficult to tell the difference between genuine protective gear and fake ones that could result in eye injuries. NASA's Alex Young told CBS News such damage can be permanent.
Many of the phony products appear to be coming from Asia, according to Fienberg, who also oversees media relations for the organization. "It's a problem that we didn't know existed until two weeks ago," he said. "Now, it's occupying every waking minute."
Though some media reports have wrongly stated that NASA endorses eclipse viewers, government agencies are precluded by ethics regulations from backing particular products. However, NASA does support the work of AAS, which has largely been done by Fienberg since 2015.
He knows the industry that supplies telescopes and other equipment to view the heavens from the more than two decades that he worked at Sky and Telescope magazine, long a favorite of both professional and amateur astronomers, including eight years as editor.
AAS asked manufacturers to provide proof from independent laboratories that they met the ISO (International Organization for Standards) 12312-2 standard which requires viewers to be thousands of times darker than typical sunglasses. The manufacturers also had to provide a list of their authorized resellers.
Besides APO, AAS' list of "Reputable Vendors" includes its main rival Rainbow Symphony, as well as Celestron, Seymour Solar and Baader Planetarium. Both APO and Rainbow Symphony use filters made by Thousand Oak Optical, which also made the cut. Fienberg also has a list of 100 vendors that he has checked are getting supplied by one of the "approved" manufacturers.
Unfortunately, some eclipse viewer makers are putting ISO labels on their products as they try to cash in on the Aug. 21 total eclipse, the first one visible in the continental U.S. since 1979. Rainbow Symphony owner Mark Margolis told CBS MoneyWatch he has seen an increase of fakes hitting the market. He began preparing for the eclipse three years ago.
Other companies are seeking AAS approval, though time is running out.
"A couple of Chinese manufacturers are close, but I'm still waiting for additional documentation and/or test results from them," Fienberg said. "The first documents they sent were incomplete and/or cited the wrong ISO standard."
According to the Great American Eclipse website, between 1.8 million and 7.4 million people are expected to travel locations along the path of totality, when the moon briefly blocks out the sun completely, that stretches from Oregon to South Carolina. Hotel and motel accommodations are growing scarce in communities that will benefit from being at the right heavenly place at the right time. It's the same for Airbnb rentals and space at campgrounds.
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