Teachers and lecturers have been using laser pointers for years to highlight key areas on charts and screens during visual presentations, but until recent reductions in manufacturing costs, laser pointers weren’t being used by many people.  However, in more recent years, many people have acquired laser pointers for personal or professional use.  Laser pointers can be very helpful when used properly and consumers have a variety of features to choose from, including different colors and styles.  The visible range of a laser pointer can vary considerably depending on wavelength, output power and environmental factors, such as background illumination and air quality.  When used in a responsible manner, most laser pointers are not considered hazardous. However, as the availability of such devices has increased, so have reports of their misuse.

In an effort to reduce these instances of misuse, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning regarding the possibility of eye injury to children from hand-held laser pointers.  The FDA warning was prompted by two reports of eye injury attributed to the misuse of these devices. Of particular concern is the promotion of laser products as children’s toys. The light energy that some kinds of laser pointers can deliver into the eye may be more damaging than staring directly into the sun.  Fortunately, the majority of the laser pointers used in the U.S. have either Class 2 or Class 3R diode lasers in the 630-680 nm wavelength (red), with a maximum power output of between 1 and 5mW. There have been reports of more powerful laser pointers imported from Russia and China that lack appropriate warning labels so consumers should take caution when purchasing laser pointers for personal use.

While the majority of damage caused by laser pointers is temporary, the kinds of impairments caused can still cause significant difficulties during their duration.  Momentary exposure from a laser pointer can cause discomfort and temporary visual impairment, such as glare, flash blindness and afterimages, without causing permanent physical damage. Glare involves a reduction or loss of visibility in the central field of vision during exposure to the direct beam of the pointer. This effect is similar to viewing oncoming headlights at night. Once the beam disappears, the glare ceases.  Flash blindness involves temporary vision impairment after viewing a bright light. The effect is similar to looking directly at a flashbulb when taking a photograph. The impairment may last for several minutes.  Afterimages involve the perception of spots in the field of vision. These afterimages can be distracting and annoying and usually last for several minutes. Visual impairment may be dangerous if the exposed person is engaged in a vision-critical activity, such as operating a vehicle or aircraft.

Laser pointers have become a serious hazard for pilots.  Because of the potential visual disturbances in the cockpit, pilots can be distracted and lose control resulting in plane or helicopter crashes.  President Barack Obama signed a bill on February 14, 2012 which contains a provision making it a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft, or the flight path of an aircraft. Violation can result in a fine and/or imprisonment up to five years.  In many municipalities, including Stillwater, it is against the law to point a laser pointer at another person.

In order to avoid ocular impairments or difficulties, the following considerations should be observed when using laser pointers:

  • Never look directly into the laser beam.
  • Never point a laser beam at a person.
  • Do not allow children to use laser pointers, unless under the supervision of an adult.

Use only laser pointers meeting the following criteria:

  • Those labeled with FDA certification stating “DANGER: Laser Radiation
  • Those Classified as Class 2 or 3R according to the label.
  • Do not use Class 3b or 4 products.
  • Those operated at a wavelength between 630-680nm
  • Those with a maximum output less than 5 mW

If you have questions about potential eye injury from laser pointers or concerns about their safety or proper use, please contact our offices in Stillwater, at 405-372-1715, or Pawnee, at 918-762-2573. We also invite you to visit our website at www.cockrelleyecare.com and like us on Facebook at Cockrell Eye Care Center!

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