Looking after your eyes on the London tube

Take a ride on the London underground and you’re destined to see sights you won’t have seen anywhere else. Strange characters dressed up as mythical creatures and dominatrix on their way to work. Longtime commuters sprawled out with shoes off and feet up. Even couples celebrating the best day of their lives by getting married on their favourite line.

The problem is, as an enclosed, poorly ventilated environment that’s also full of metal, the tube is one of the worst places for your eyes in the whole city. Monitors placed in underground stations by Transport For London have found large particles of ‘toxic dust’ in the air — a particularly harmful substance that could penetrate the lungs and other organs including the liver, brain, and kidneys.

These metal-rich particles are typically found at steel mills or welding plants and have long been known for their have damaging effects on health. But little research has been done in hot, air-condition-less underground stations, and therefore it’s difficult to say just how bad the air quality actually is.

But with over a billion journeys being made on the tube a year and many commuters spending an hour or two a day cooped up in its stations and carriages, there’s no time to wait for new health and safety standards if you want to safeguard your vision. The London Underground’s air quality programme has ensured particles are within Health and Safety Executive guidelines, but with studies suggesting that particulate levels in the subway system can be as much as eight times higher than those experienced when travelling by car, it’s worth doing something about it.

Protecting your eyes on the tube

This is especially the case if you’re generally more susceptible to the effects of air pollution. Contact lens wearers, children under 14, the elderly, and people who suffer from eye conditions such as dry eye can experience symptoms more easily and severely than others. These symptoms, as set out by the Eye Care Trust, include:

  • A constant feeling that you have grit or dust in your eye
  • Painful, itchy or bloodshot eyes
  • Excessive tearing
  • A sticky discharge

You may experience the above alongside other symptoms of air pollution like a cough, sore throat, and increased tiredness, particularly if your immune system is compromised. For instance, if you have a respiratory condition like asthma or are pregnant. In these cases, you want to take extra precaution and use alternative modes of transports when you can. When you do take the tube, however, there are a few things you can do to minimise the risk and potential of eye irritation:

  • Wear sunglasses (wrap-around styles are best) to prevent pollutants entering your eyes
  • Avoid the tube when the temperature is high and pollution levels are at their peak
  • Use lubricating eye drops to prevent soreness or itching
  • Avoid wearing contact lenses, or if you need to remove their lenses at the first sign of eye irritation and thoroughly clean them in medicated solution

If symptoms persist you should seek advice from your local optometrist. And don’t forget, as well as taking active precautions to protect your eyes on the tube, you can also check the London Air website to find out real-time pollution levels in your location.