Powerful laser pointers create risks

Nov 22, 2010 By Dan Vergano

The latest generation of high-powered laser pointers may seem like a fun Christmas gift, but experts caution consumers to weigh the potential harm.

Sold online for as little as $20, some laser pointers offer a brightness about 10,000 times stronger than looking at the sun, warn eye-safety experts. At that power, they exceed 5-milliwatt power limits on manufacturers selling laser pointers to consumers.

A milliwatt is one-thousandth of a watt, and although 5 milliwatts is just a fraction of what's needed to power even a household light bulb, lasers pack their punch by concentrating light into a single beam. Meanwhile, pointers are now being sold with as much as 700 milliwatts of power.

"These devices are hazardous and some are being sold as party toys," says photonics professor Thomas Baer of Stanford University. The worldwide compact disc and DVD boom has led to improved lasers that can generate a powerful beam with small batteries, produced by low-cost overseas manufacturers, he says.

"Higher and higher power lasers are going to be with us in the future," says laser safety expert Casey Stack of Laser Compliance in Centerville, Utah. "We need to start a discussion about public safety."

Lasers deliver a beam of focused light, usually of a single wavelength. The eye focuses the light narrowly, which can scar the retina. A Sept. 9 report, for example, described a 15-year-old boy who scarred the retina of both his eyes after creating a "light show" in a mirror with a 150-milliwatt . For such powerful lasers, "even an inadvertent glance into the laser beam can cause immediate severe eye injury," says report co-author Martin Schmid of Switzerland's Lucerne Cantonal Hospital.

Green laser pointers can be particularly dangerous, Schmid and other experts warn, for two reasons. Often, they emit light in wavelengths that don't trigger the eye to blink and block out the light. And green lights are particularly bright to the eye, potentially triggering "flash blindness," a temporary loss of vision that can last for minutes.

The National Transportation Safety Board aviation database does not list any accident involving lasers in the last decade. However, pilots in particular worry about overpowered lasers directed at cockpits. In a March safety advisory, the FDA said it was "concerned about recent reports of laser products directed at aircraft - a potentially hazardous situation." In 2004 and 2005, more than a dozen such pranks were reported by the Federal Aviation Administration, a number that had climbed to 950 cases by 2008.

The FDA only has jurisdiction over manufacturers of lasers, who are mostly overseas, and its current warnings to consumers extend only to "buyer beware" notices about buying high-powered laser pointers.

Explore further: Oil-swishing craze: Snake oil or all-purpose remedy?

5 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Doctors see eye hazard in powerful laser pointers

Sep 09, 2010

(AP) -- A 15-year-old boy damaged his eyes while playing with a laser pointer he'd bought over the Internet, say doctors who warn that dangerously high-powered versions are easily available online.

Building a more versatile laser

Nov 16, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- One of the drawbacks associated with using semiconductor lasers is that many of them can only produce a beam of a single wavelength, and can only send that beam in one direction at a time. ...

Giant laser system is under construction

Apr 24, 2008

The world's largest laser system -- the National Ignition Facility -- is being built in California and officials say it will go online next year.

Recommended for you

Suddenly health insurance is not for sale

Apr 18, 2014

(HealthDay)— Darlene Tucker, an independent insurance broker in Scotts Hill, Tenn., says health insurers in her area aren't selling policies year-round anymore.

Study: Half of jailed NYC youths have brain injury (Update)

Apr 18, 2014

About half of all 16- to 18-year-olds coming into New York City's jails say they had a traumatic brain injury before being incarcerated, most caused by assaults, according to a new study that's the latest in a growing body ...

Autonomy and relationships among 'good life' goals

Apr 18, 2014

Young adults with Down syndrome have a strong desire to be self-sufficient by living independently and having a job, according to a study into the meaning of wellbeing among young people affected by the disorder.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Study says we're over the hill at 24

(Medical Xpress)—It's a hard pill to swallow, but if you're over 24 years of age you've already reached your peak in terms of your cognitive motor performance, according to a new Simon Fraser University study.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.