Orlando, FL – July 26, 2011 – No one wishes to see their friends or loved ones lose their eyesight. Precautions are taken daily to protect ourselves from danger. We wear safety glasses when using power tools in the yard or workshop. We watch for others and keep children away from these working areas.  By and large, these hazards are recognized and we are taught how to deal with them as part of growing up.

Today, we are faced with a new danger to that eyesight—one that is not yet recognized as an immediate threat or danger—the high-power laser pointer.

For almost twenty years, laser pointers have been used in the classroom and boardroom for the purpose of improving presentations. These pointers are mass-produced and appear almost toy-like due to their low-cost and miniaturized design. These laser pointers are limited in power output, which is measured in milliwatts (mW). A typical pointer used for presentations has long been limited to 5 mW of output power; plenty of power to see the “spot” when indoors, yet relatively safe.

In recent months, technology advances have enabled much higher laser powers to be contained within small, low-cost, hand-held devices. These can be made similar in appearance to a pen, or a small flashlight, sometimes looking exactly like a lower power laser pointer. They can emit a red, green or blue light with a much brighter “spot.” These new lasers often emit as much as 50 to 1,000 mW of power, a factor of 10 to 200 times that needed for safe use as a normal pointer. Some of these pointers emit not only visible light (red, green or blue), but also emit additional invisible and dangerous (infrared) radiation at many times the stated visible light power. The device manufacturers skirt established regulations limiting “laser pointer” output power by renaming the devices as “hand-held lasers” or “scientific devices.”

Due to the increased power levels, these lasers are a real, immediate and often unrecognized danger. While seen as a novelty, or a “bigger is better” solution, a laser emitting 50 mW or more can immediately cause an injury upon exposure, permanently affecting eyesight. A 200 mW laser, even 100 yards away, may cause permanent damage in less than 1/10th of a second (less than the time to blink!).  The media has reported on injuries that have occurred due to irresponsible or uneducated use of these devices. Children and adults alike have suffered permanent partial blindness because they do not recognize that there is an immediate danger.

There is an active debate about what should be done. Is the solution education, regulation or prohibition for this type of hand-held laser device?

Lasers with these output power levels have been around for decades.  Due to their cost, size and complexity they have long been limited to research, industrial, entertainment and medical applications. In these settings, administrative controls limit access to the laser and safety training can be provided to users. However, in the public sector these methods are not being used.

The FDA currently requires any laser sold in the US to be marked with their hazard class, output power and wavelengths emitted. The public, and parents in particular, are cautioned against using any laser pointers with power greater than 5 mW. Precautions on the safe use of pointers can be found in a free bulletin on the Laser Institute of America’s website, http://www.lia.org/subscriptions/safety_bulletin/laser_pointer/. Further warnings can be found at the FDA site www.fda.gov/MedicalDevices/Safety/AlertsandNotices/ucm237129.htm. The FDA does not prevent the sale of laser pointers within the USA; it only requires that the dangers are properly presented through labeling with hazard classification…terminology not commonly understood by the public.

In summary, common understanding of the danger presented by high-power hand-held lasers is not pervasive. Until the time that these lasers are statutorily banned, regulated through licensing or are widely recognized as a hazard, many more injuries will occur. The public should take note of these dangers immediately and keep these high-power, hand-held devices away from children and the untrained user.

About LIA
Laser Institute of America (LIA) is the professional society for laser applications and safety serving the industrial, educational, medical, research and government communities throughout the world since 1968. LIA is the secretariat and publisher of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z136 series of laser safety standards. For more information, visit www.lia.org.