More Laser Safety

More Laser Safety

Safety Recommendations for Laser Pointers

The use of laser pointers has become widespread. The pointers are useful tools for educators in the classroom and at conventions and meetings. However, due to the low cost and ubiquitous supply, these pointers are now being purchased and used by the general public, including children, and used in ways not intended by the manufacturers. As a result, serious concerns about the hazards of laser pointers have surfaced.

Potential Hazards

The hazards of laser pointers are limited to the eye. Although with most visible lasers, the largest concern is potential damage to the retina, most laser pointers are not likely to cause permanent retinal damage.

The most likely effects from exposure to viewing the beam from a laser pointer are afterimage, flashblindness and glare. Flashblindness is temporary vision impairment after viewing a bright light. This is similar to looking directly at a flashbulb when having a picture taken. The impairment may last several minutes.

Afterimage is the perception of spots in the field of vision. This can be distracting and annoying, and may last several minutes, although there have been reports of afterimages lasting several days.

Glare is a reduction or complete loss of visibility in the central field of vision while being exposed to the direct or scattered beam. This is similar to viewing oncoming headlights on a dark night. Once the beam is out of the field of vision, the glare ceases. While this does not pose a hazard to the eye, it can cause serious distraction and outrage. Glare can be exacerbated when the beam is reflected from a mirror-like surface.

Responsible laser owners should take some time to fully understand the FAA regulations surrounding the use of laser pointers. There is an extensive Wikipedia article about Lasers & Aviation Safety. There is a lot of information to digest on this page. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, the animated GIFs on the right illustrate the effects of green lasers on a cockpit at various distances.


Laser Pointer Safety Tips:

  • Do not allow minors to use a laser pointer unsupervised. Furthermore, only allow adults to use laser pointers after they have understood the responsibilities and risks that it carries.
  • Never shine a laser pointer at anyone, especially their face. Even temporary exposure can cause significant damage to the eye. Laser pointers are designed to point at inanimate objects.
  • Always be conscious of where you're pointing. Avoid pointing a laser at any reflective surfaces. Unintentionally reflected beams can easily violate tip #2.
  • Never use your laser pointer in the vicinity of airports, highways, construction sites or anywhere individuals need to constantly pay attention to their work for their own safety. A split-second distraction--a sudden laser light in a plane cockpit, for example--can be disastrous.
  • Be especially cautious around high-powered lasers, like green laser pointers used for stargazing. They are far stronger than the red pointers commonly used during lectures. And do not purchase a laser pointer at all if it does not identify its class or power.
  • Do not purchase a laser pointer if it does not have a caution or danger sticker on it identifying its class. Report suspicious devices to the FDA.

A helicopter being targeted by a laser pointer. Watch the video here.

3700 Feet away. FAA flight simulator showing distraction where the light does not obscure vision but can distract the pilot.

1200 Feet away. FAA flight simulator showing veiling glare where it is hard to see through the light to the background scene.

350 Feet away.Simulation of temporary flash blindness where the image takes from a few seconds to a few minutes to fade away, depending on how much light entered the eye.

Arrested for shining a laser at an aircraft.

Balltazar Valladares, 29: felony punishable by up to three years in prison or a fine of up to $2,000. His bail was $45,000.

David Banach, 38: If convicted of anti-terrorism violations, faces up to 25 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000.

For more news related links click here.

FDA Issues Warning on Misuse of Laser Pointers

The Food and Drug Administration is warning parents and school officials about the possibility of eye damage to children from hand-held laser pointers. These products are generally safe when used as intended by teachers and lecturers to highlight areas on a chart or screen. However, recent price reductions have led to promotion and use of these products as children's toys.

The light energy that pointers can aim into the eye can be more damaging than staring directly into the sun. Federal law requires a warning on the product label about this potential hazard to the eyes.

" These laser pointers are not toys. Parents should treat them with appropriate care," said FDA Lead Deputy Commissioner Michael A Friedman, M.D. "They are useful tools for adults that should be used by children only with adequate supervision."

The FDA's warning is prompted by two anecdotal reports it has received of eye injury from laser pointers -- one from a parent, the other from an ophthalmologist. Momentary exposure from a laser pointer, such as might occur from an inadvertent sweep of the light across a person's eyes, causes only temporary flash blindness. However, even this can be dangerous if the exposed person is engaged in a vision-critical activity such as driving.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration presented their views on the hazards of powerful laser pointers, in a webpage and in a downloadable PDF brochure. According to Cdr. Dan Hewett of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, "When used responsibly, lasers are safe. However, a powerful laser, used irresponsibly, is unsafe, particularly when misused as a toy or directed at people, vehicles or aircraft."

FDA is especially concerned about laser pointers above 5 mW, and about aircraft incidents. "In 2008, pilots reported a total of 950 cases of laser light striking an aircraft or illuminating a cockpit....The distraction from flash blindness could cause a serious accident."

The webpage and brochure also describes FDA's regulatory authority over laser products, and gives some tips for consumers.

Both formats (web and PDF) contain the same text; one is best for online review and the other for print purposes.

click to download the pdf file

In Summary

As a general concept, owning a laser is pretty fun. We once had fun watching a cat chase the laser point all over the garden. Being able to point out start or other objects clearly and easily is really helpful. But, lasers are definitely not toys and should be treated like one treats a sharp knife.

Bottom line, you are well advised to read up on the legality of buying and owning lasers and where and how you can use them. Used safely and properly, they can be educational and fun. Used improperly, they can seriously injure people's eyes and even land you with a big fine or in jail.

Related News Links

A Letter from the International Laser Display Association:

To ILDA Members and interested laserists:

As you know, ILDA has been working for 15 years on the issue of laser/aircraft safety. As part of this effort, we have called for handheld lasers, including laser pointers, to have a label warning against aiming at aircraft.

I am pleased to note that Wicked Lasers has begin putting a notice like this on their "Pro" series lasers. These are newly-designed lasers which are certified to the U.S. CDRH. Wicked Lasers should be commended for designing a series that meets CDRH requirements -- and for going beyond these requirements to add the aircraft warning. The wording they use is:

Shooting a laser at an aircraft is considered a felony in the U.S.

I want to publicly thank Wicked Lasers, their CEO Steve Liu, and all those who helped get this wording onto the labels.

If you sell pointers and handheld lasers, I'd also like to ask you to add a warning like this to your lasers.

More information, and a picture of the label, is at ILDA's website

More information about what laser pointer sellers, distributors and manufacturers can do is at:

- Patrick Murphy, ILDA Executive Director