FDA Issues Laser Pointer Warning Over Blindness, Burn Risks

Government safety officials are urging consumers to be aware of the safety hazards associated with hand-held laser pointers, including skin irritation, burns and a risk of causing blindness. 

The FDA released a new report on December 22, warning about the laser pointer risks in light of the Holiday season, asking parents, guardians, and gift-givers to avoid purchasing them for fun.

Consumers are being urged to recognize that laser pointers can cause blindness if shined in the eyes, among other injuries. If laser pointers are handled improperly and shined at aircraft or vehicles, it could result in serious accidents, and the activity constitutes a felony that may result in fines of up to $250,000.

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The FDA restricts the visible light power of hand-held laser pointers to 5 milliwatts (mW) in certain products and in toys, but warns that even a 5mW laser aimed directly into a person’s eyes may cause temporary flash blindness and irritation. Shinning a laser-pointer into a person’s eyes will also likely trigger a protective reflex to look away, blink, or turn away from the light which in certain circumstances can cause hazardous situations if occurring in a vehicle.

The FDA is asking customers to not only avoid purchasing these types of products, but to also never use them as “toys”. Laser-pointers should never be pointed in the direction of another person and users should always be aware of the lasers direction.

Shinning a laser into a mirror or reflective surface can cause a redirection of the lasers light, catching them by surprise and increased the risk of injury, the agency warned.

According to the FDA, most laser pointer injuries likely go unreported. However, many injuries are reported each year especially from military personnel, researchers, hobbyists, and children. The impacts can cause long-term damage.

One report received of a hand-held laser light injury indicate a child’s eyes were damaged from reflected beams after a 150mW laser pointer reflected from a mirror into his eyes. Other reports have indicated children going completely blind in both eyes after playing with their parent’s laser pointers.

In the past, the FDA has recognized trends in the use of laser-pointers, noting that children have used them to play “tag” and in some cases actually melt or pop objects such as balloons with the lights, indicating just how powerful and harmful extended exposure can be. The latest warning comes about a year after the FDA issued guidance on laser toys for children and five years after it first warned the public about the dangers of laser pointers.

In addition to injury hazards, misuse of hand-held laser-pointers can also lead to criminal charges and fines. Just this year, the Federal Aviation Administration has received more than 5,000 incidents of “flash-blinding” which is when a pilot experiences temporary loss of vision when lasers are aimed at their aircrafts. Flashing blinding of pilots can cause an extremely dangerous situation that can lead to mass fatalities and severe property destruction. It is a felony to shine a laser-pointer at an aircraft and those convicted face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The FDA recommends that individuals in possession of hand-held laser pointers with more than 5mW power should discard them. Individuals may identify whether their laser-pointer is more or less powerful than 5mW by checking the power source of the device. The FDA suggests that users read the product packaging and manual for the light strength.

However, newer reports by the agency have revealed some lasers purchased online actually contain higher powered lights than described on the packaging. The agency recommends that if the laser-pointer is small and powered by button batteries, it is probably less than 5mW. If the laser-pointer is pen-sized and runs on AA or AAA batteries, it is likely to be more powerful and exceed the 5mW strength.

The FDA is urging consumers to avoid purchasing these items, especially during the holidays when children will be more inclined to use them as toys and inappropriate manners. Those who choose to purchase laser-lights should not seek to exceed the 5mW power and avoid products labeled powerful, military grade, burning, super bright, high power, lithium battery, or balloon pop.


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