A look at the hazards of green laser pointers

Apr 05, 2013 by David Dickinson, Universe Today
A look at the hazards of green laser pointers
An appropriate use of a laser during last year’s Jupiter-Venus conjunction. Credit: Author

Those handheld green lasers pointers may not be as harmless as you thought.

A recent study released by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has revealed an alarming trend. Of 122 hand-held tested, 44% of red lasers and 90% of green lasers tested failed federal safety regulations.

The primary culprit was overpowered units. The Code of Federal Regulations in the United States limits commercial class IIIa lasers to 5 (mW). And yes, lasers above 5 mW are commercially available in the United States, but it is illegal to market them as Class IIIa devices. Some units in the NIST study tested as high as 13 times over the legal limit at 66.5 mW. For context, many military grade rifle mounted lasers are rated at 50 mW.

"Our results raise numerous safety questions regarding pointers and their use," stated NIST laser safety officer in the recent paper presented at the Laser Safety Conference in Orlando, Florida.

Why should backyard astronomers care? Well, since hand-held lasers first became commercially available they've become a familiar staple at many public star parties. Reflecting back off of the dust and suspended particles in the atmosphere, a provides a pointer beam allowing the user to trace out constellations and faint objects. Lasers can also be mounted on the optical tube assemblies of a telescope for pointing in lieu of a finder scope.

An amateur astronomy club based near San Antonio, Texas even coordinated signaling the with a pair of powerful searchlights and a 1 watt blue laser in 2012, just to prove that it was possible.

A diagram of a typical diode-pumped solid-state laser. Credit: NASA/Langley

But such devices are not toys. Even a 5 mW laser can temporarily blind someone at short range. Further eye damage can often linger for days or even permanently and can go unnoticed. This is why researchers working around lasers in research facilities such as LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) must submit to routine eye exams.

The trouble with green lasers is that, well, they look too much like light sabers.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

It's for this reason I keep mine on a very "short leash" at star parties and NEVER hand it off to anyone, no matter how well meaning, child or adult. I also NEVER point it below the local horizon, (there's wildlife in them trees). A laser reflected inadvertently off of an optical surface such as a car window or primary mirror can also do just as much damage as a direct aiming.

And also, NEVER aim one at an aircraft. In fact, it's a federal violation to do so. The Federal Aviation Administration has reported a 13-fold trend in reported aircraft/laser incidents from 2005 to 2011. There has also been an upward trend in individuals being tracked down and prosecuted for such offenses. If it blinks, assume it's an aircraft and steer clear!

Reported incidents of laser/aircraft violations from 2005-2011. Credit: Federal Aviation Administration

In a post-9/11 era, the Department of Homeland Security has been concerned with the potential threat posed by laser pointers as well. It's not yet illegal to fly in the US with a 5mW laser pointer in your carry-on luggage, but and several countries now outlaw them all together, a note for traveling astronomers. Note that the de facto policy often comes down to the particular TSA officer you're dealing with.

With this sort of news, we wonder if laser pointers might become outlawed entirely in the coming years. 5mW range lasers are generally classed IIIa or 3R systems. By the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) guidelines, such devices under the recent NIST study would fall into the much more hazardous IIIb range for 5-500 mW lasers. Such lasers can cause permanent eye damage with direct exposure for periods of as little as 1/100th of a second.

Safety distances for a 5mW green laser. Credit: Wikimedia Commons graphic under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License

It's also worth noting that actual reported cases of laser injuries are fairly rare. A 2004 paper from the Archives of Ophthalmology cites 15 injuries worldwide each year, while a recent 2012 paper in PLoS ONE estimates "220 confirmed laser eye injuries have occurred between 1964 and 1996," for an average of 6.9 laser injuries per year.

The Code of Federal Regulations limits output for green laser pointers to 5mW in the visible range and 2mW in the infrared. 75% of the tested devices exceed this standard for infrared emission as well. Note that there have been anecdotal reports that even the point source generated by a laser (say, by shining it against a wall) can be excessively bright. This recent NIST study was the first time we'd seen a back up argument for this. Many of the cheaper handheld lasers sold online (think in the 20$ USD range) may forgo the infrared filtering component all together.

So in lieu of an outright ban on laser pointers, what can be done? Joshua Hadler cites the need for a better accountability for laser manufacturers. "By relying on manufacturers' traceability to a national measurement institute such as NIST, someone could use this design to accurately measure power from a laser pointer." Mr. Hadler also notes that a simple test bed for laser pointers can be built using off the shelf parts for less than $2,000 USD. We're surprised there's not "an App/Kickstarter for that…" already. (Would-be designers take note!)

In the end, we'd hate to see these crucial tools for astronomy outreach banned just because a very few individuals were irresponsible with them. Through accountability from production to application, we can assure that laser pointers remain a vital part of the amateur astronomer's tool kit.

Explore further: Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Powerful laser pointers create risks

Nov 22, 2010

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

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.

Researchers build fully mechanical phonon laser

Mar 19, 2013

(Phys.org) —Researchers working at Japan's NTT Basic Research Laboratories have successfully built an all mechanical phonon laser. In their paper published in Physical Review Letters, the team describes how th ...

Optical Society Launches Laser Anniversary Video

Apr 09, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The Optical Society (OSA) today announced the release of the video Lasers: Transforming Life, a special anniversary video highlighting the importance of lasers and laser technology.

Recommended for you

Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

Apr 16, 2014

Science has often come to the rescue when it comes to the world's big problems, be it the Green Revolution that helped avoid mass starvation or the small pox vaccine that eradicated the disease. There is ...

Japan stem cell body splashes cash on luxury furniture

Apr 14, 2014

A publicly-funded research institute in Japan, already embattled after accusing one of its own stem cell scientists of faking data, has spent tens of thousands of dollars on designer Italian furniture, reportedly to use up ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

baudrunner
not rated yet Apr 05, 2013
natello: I haven't read anything about that, but I guess that's your point. However, pyrotechnics aren't intended to obstruct, impede, interfere, or otherwise bug people. The issue is one of malicious intent, such as when lasers are pointed at airplanes, or at people's eyes. There are pricks out there and sometimes laws have to be enacted to deal with them.

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Deadly human pathogen Cryptococcus fully sequenced

Within each strand of DNA lies the blueprint for building an organism, along with the keys to its evolution and survival. These genetic instructions can give valuable insight into why pathogens like Cryptococcus ne ...

Researchers discover target for treating dengue fever

Two recent papers by a University of Colorado School of Medicine researcher and colleagues may help scientists develop treatments or vaccines for Dengue fever, West Nile virus, Yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and other ...