Watch out for fake contact lenses, warn US authorities

With just days until Halloween, US law enforcement authorities are warning the public who are looking to dress-up for the scary celebration to keep an eye out for counterfeit and decorative contact lenses.

The counterfeit lenses and unapproved decorative lenses are being sold illegally online and at retail outlets, and can cause eye infections, conjunctivitis and impaired vision.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have joined forces to increase awareness. As part of the ongoing Operation Double Vision, the authorities have already seized around 100,000 pairs of counterfeit, illegal and unapproved contact lenses.

"Criminal elements will capitalise on the excitement of the holiday season by selling substandard, dangerous counterfeit and illegal items with no regard for the health and safety of consumers," ICE Homeland Security Investigations Executive Associate Director Peter Edge said.

"Our agents are committed to collaborating with external agencies to develop effective operations and conduct aggressive investigations into the distribution of fake goods that threaten the American public with lengthy medical procedures and strenuous rehabilitation programmes," he added.

Tests of previously seized counterfeit lenses have found the presence of infection-causing bacteria and toxins as a result of poor packaging and storage, while decorative lenses may contain toxic compounds in the dye such as lead, which can leach into the eye. The lens material can also starve the eye of oxygen or scratch the eye surface.

The counterfeit contact lens market is big business. In 2012, US authorities raided several locations in Puerto Rico and seized 4,000 counterfeit Novartis Fresh Look contact lenses worth $200,000.

Earlier this month a Florida man was arrested for selling counterfeit lenses for $15 at his cell phone store. Tests of the lenses showed bacterial contamination.

The warning also comes just a month after the largest ever investigation into counterfeit lenses in the US where another US man pleaded guilty to selling counterfeit decorative lenses from China and South Korea to unsuspecting consumers without a prescription. It is estimated he made around $1.2m in gross revenue from his illegal business and is now looking at up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The case revealed that a number of customers complained about the quality of the lenses. The man, Demitriy Melnik, admitted some of his contact lenses had been tested and were found to be contaminated with potentially hazardous bacteria.

Studies that have been conducted have found that 11 per cent of consumers have worn decorative contact lenses, with the majority of those purchased without a prescription.

Contact lenses are regulated by the FDA as a medical device and authorities recommend prescriptions purchased from a licensed provider.

"You'd never buy a new hip at a flea market and you should never buy a medical device like contact lenses at one either. If you're not careful, one night of using knock-off lenses to change your appearance can mean a permanent change in your ability to see for the rest of your life," said Dr Ben Casella, president of the Georgia Optometric Association.

George Karavetsos, director, FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations, said: "We will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who attempt to circumvent the regulatory process and put the public's health at risk."

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