The Every Day Dangers of Lasers
They’ve gone from Star Wars fiction to everyday use, so these beams of electromagnetic radiation known as lasers are pretty common now. We see them in everything from toy guns and spinning tops to pet toys and light shows at concerts.
We use them at work when doing slide presentations and they’re used extensively in medicine and industry. I had laser surgery to secure a nearly detached retina.
But as common as they are, they’re not without danger to one’s vision. When aimed directly into the eye, they can injure in an instant or over time. Based on the power of the beam, they can be more damaging than staring directly into the sun.
Unauthorized Modifications Concern FDA
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is particularly concerned about green laser pointers. Acknowledging that there are legitimate uses for green pointers, they also report that they may be altered to become more powerful and unsafe if not used responsibly.
"These overpowered pointers may have been modified to emit more radiation than the manufacturer's original product," says Lt. Cmdr. Sean Boyd, M.P.H., head of the electronic products branch in FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), "and they are not compliant with our standard." The FDA sets safety standards that must be met before laser products, including pointers, can be legally sold in the U.S. market.
In 2016, FDA proposed sweeping changes to federal laser pointer laws, with the intention of designating all laser pointers that are not red as “defective.” This designation would prohibit the sale of green, blue and other non-red pointers in the United States, and would make it easier for FDA to control and seize imports of such lasers.
FDA is presently working to identify manufacturers of overpowered green laser pointers (and other illegal laser products) and will take the necessary action to prevent these unsafe products from being sold in the United States.
Laser injuries don’t usually cause pain, and sometimes the damage can take days or weeks to appear. And the damage they cause ranges from minimal to blindness.
Lasers available to the average consumer have become less expensive and more powerful over the years. In fact, according to FDA, some compact laser pointers have increased in power by 10-fold in the past decade or so.
Lasers Are Divided into Classes
Because of their potential for causing damage to eyes or skin, and for starting fires, lasers are classified based on the power or energy of the beam and the wavelength of the emitted radiation.
CLASS I. Lasers in this class are generally deemed unable to produce damaging radiation levels, such as the laser in a laser printer or CD player. Lasers in this class are generally exempt from most control measures and official oversight.
CLASS II. Lasers in this class emit radiation in the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our blink reflex usually affords us protection unless we’re subjected to direct eye exposure over an extended period of time. Some laser pointers fall into this class.
CLASS III. This class is subdivided into A and B categories.
Class IIIa lasers can cause damage to the eye when viewed directly, so the experts suggest you don’t do that. And don’t look at a Class IIIa laser through binoculars or a telescope as this would amplify the problem. The most common uses of this class of laser as far as consumers are concerned, are probably in laser pointers and scanners.
Class IIIb lasers can cause damage to the eye when viewed directly. Even diffuse reflections of the beam can be injurious. Probably the most common example of a Class IIIb laser that the average person would encounter would be during light shows at a concert or some other entertainment venue.
CLASS IV. The Class IV laser beam and its diffuse reflections are hazardous to the eyes and skin. In fact, most eye injuries are a result of the reflected beams of Class IV lasers. And Class IV laser beams are fire hazards depending upon the target. They use Class IV lasers in surgical procedures and industrial applications such as drilling, cutting, and welding.
It goes without saying that shining a laser device into the eye of another person is a dangerous practice. Children can do so innocently enough and therefore should not be allowed to use a laser device without close supervision.
I know of a case where a mom interrupted an "eye exam" conducted by her 4 year old on the family cat using the laser cat toy. “But that's the way Dr. ______ does it to me," the junior doctor replied. That’s pretty easy to understand, which underscores the need to carefully supervise children using a laser toy.
Stuck on Stupid
But what isn’t easy to understand is adults shining lasers into the eyes of others intentionally. There was a case in Missouri in 2011 where some guy on the ground was shining a laser into the cockpit of a helicopter. The guy was arrested after the pilot radioed authorities, who sped to the airport and caught him red handed.
The FBI calls them “laser incidents” and there’s been an increase in them every year since 2005 when officials started tracking them. In 2010 there were some 2800 reported laser incidents.
At about the same time that the Missouri incident hit the news, there was a story out of Edinburgh, Scotland, that there’d been a rash of reports of people shining lasers into the eyes of drivers. One report said someone shone a laser at the cockpit of a fighter jet.
Penalties Include Prison Sentences and Substantial Fines
In the U.S. persons convicted of shining a laser beam at aircraft face a 20 year prison sentence. It also will cost them a pretty penny…up to $250,000 plus an $11,000 civil penalty from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).
What To Look For When Buying Laser Products
When you buy a laser toy or other device, the FDA suggests you look for wording on the packaging that indicates the device complies with 21 CFR (the Code of Federal Regulations) Subchapter J. If you don’t see it, they say you shouldn’t make any assumptions about its safety.
FDA also suggests that the product contain the manufacturer or distributor's name and the date of manufacture, a warning to avoid exposure to laser radiation, and the class designation, ranging from Class I to IIIa.
Class IIIb and IV products should be used only by individuals with proper training and in applications where there is a legitimate need for these high-powered products.
I’m not aware of an epidemic of laser injuries, but I’ll bet if I could talk to pediatricians and physicians around the country, I’d find that they’re more common than suspected. It would seem that common sense, coupled with educating and supervising children, would would go a long way in keeping people safe from laser injuries.
You Probably Didn't Know This Bit of Laser Trivia
The word laser stands for Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
Common Modern Day Uses of Lasers
According to FDA, Americans encounter laser light on a regular basis in the conduct of their daily lives. Here is the list compiled by the agency:
- Components of audio, video and computer equipment such as CD, DVD, Blue Ray, HD (High Definition), or other optical disk players and recorders
- Many bar code readers
- Printers, copiers, FAX machines
- Laser pointers and pens commonly used for presentations, surveying, and positioning
- Fiber optic systems for telephone, video, and computer networks.
- Applied to material processing operations such as cutting, welding, engraving, or marking systems.
- Applications in laboratories for research, measurements, and optical sources.
- Lasers specifically designed for use in medical procedures.
- Lasers specifically designed and promoted for laser light shows, entertainment, advertising, etc.
- National Institutes of Health, National Center for Biotechnology Information: Laser Eye Injuries.
- LaserPointerSafety.com: U.S. national, state and local laws.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Radiation-Emitting Products, Laser Products and Instruments.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Radiation-Emitting Products, Illuminating Facts About Laser Pointers.
© 2013 Bob Bamberg