FDA Warns About Risk of Laser Pointer Injuries

Federal regulators are warning people to be aware of the potential risk of eye and skin injuries associated with the growing, and often illegal, use of high-powered laser pointers. 

The FDA issued a laser pointer safety notification on December 16, indicating that laser pointers with an output power of more than 5 milliwatts (mW) are both dangerous and illegal. The pointers are becoming more available and more affordable on the internet and federal agencies like the FDA and the Federal Aviation Administration are seeing an increase in personal injuries and illegal uses that could have catastrophic results.

Lasers at the 5 mW legal limit can cause temporarily flash blindness, but usually will not result in permanent injury because most people will instinctively turn away from the flash, cover their eyes or move out of the path of the beam as soon as the bright light hits their eye. However, more powerful laser pointers could cause instant and permanent damage. Some laser pointers currently available on the internet have an output power of 1,000 mW.

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The FDA says that the number of injuries from such devices are increasing. Most of the reports come from military personnel, researchers and public speakers, but the FDA also says that there are increasing numbers of reports of children being injured by the devices as well.

Perhaps most alarming is the number of times that airplane pilots are filing reports of laser pointers flashed into their cockpits. There were 2,321 such reports in the first 10 months of 2010 alone; a staggering increase over the 1,500 incidents reported by pilots in 2009.

Not only could the lasers cause injury to pilots, but they could also result in a crash, killing passengers and crew onboard the aircraft and endangering the lives of people on the ground as well. Targeting an aircraft with a laser pointer is a federal crime.

The FDA recommended that parents never buy laser pointers as toys for children to use, regardless of the power level, and warned consumers not to buy any laser pointer above 5 mW output power, which are illegal. The agency also warns consumers not to shine laser pointers at people, pets, vehicles or aircraft, either directly or by reflecting them off of a mirror. Anyone who owns a laser pointer should check the output power and dispose of the pointer if it exceeds 5 mW.


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