The Dangers of Lasers Pointers

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By Mark S. Siegel, MD FAAO

A boy from Greece lost much of the vision in one eye after looking directly at the light from a laser pointer several times, according to a report published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine. Unfortunately, this kind of injury is all too common.

It can be hard to tell how powerful a laser pointer is. The power of the laser makes the difference between a harmless novelty and a blinding danger.

In the United States, the federal Food and Drug Administration regulates laser devices. The FDA provides a wealth of basic information about lasers, laser safety tips for parents, and guidance for manufacturers.   

Products that contain lasers are generally safe when used as directed. But continuing stories of injuries suggest that many people still don’t know what’s safe. The FDA provides these tips for anyone who owns or is considering getting a laser device:

Never aim or shine a laser directly at anyone, including animals. The light energy from a laser aimed into the eye can be hazardous, perhaps even more than staring directly into the sun.

Do not aim a laser at any vehicle, aircraft, or shiny surface. Remember that the startling effect of a bright beam of light can cause serious accidents when aimed at a driver in a car, for instance, or otherwise negatively affect someone doing another activity (such as playing sports).

Look for an FDA-recommended IEC Class I label on children’s toy lasers. The label says “Class 1 Laser Product,” which would clearly communicate that the product is of low risk and not in a higher emission level laser class.

Do not buy laser pointers for children, or allow children to use them. These products are not toys.

Do not buy or use any laser that emits more than 5mW power, or that does not have the power printed on the labeling.

Immediately consult a health care professional if you or a child suspects or experiences any eye injury.

As power increases above five milliwatts, the time margin for safe exposure decreases and permanent eye and skin damage can occur quickly. However, the output power of laser pointers is not immediately apparent to the user. Laser pointers often lack the required labeling or are mislabeled, and definitive testing of individual pointers is beyond the reach of the average consumer.

Researchers have concluded that the wide availability of these devices, which are often marketed as toys, could lead to an epidemic of eye injuries, according to a study released in 2013 by Ophthalmology, the journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

If a laser with less than five milliwatts of output power is directed at someone’s eye, that person can blink or turn away without suffering an eye injury. However, the natural protective mechanisms of the eye – such as the blink reflex – are ineffective against lasers with an output power greater than five milliwatts, and severe retinal damage may occur, even after momentary exposure.

The problem is that the products sometimes lack labels or have inaccurate labels. About 60 percent of the sampled laser pointer products that the FDA tests were overpowered compared with what the label said. 

Dr. Mark Siegel is the medical director at Sea Island Ophthalmology at 111 High Tide Drive (off Midtown Drive near Low Country Medical Group). Visit www.seaislandophthalmology.com.