FDA Reminding Consumers of Risks Connected to Laser Pointers

FDA Reminding Consumers of Risks Connected to Laser Pointers
Image: Pixabay
December 23, 2015

Is a special someone getting a laser pointer this holiday season?

If so, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reminding consumers about the risk of eye and skin injuries from laser exposure. While most toys with lasers are safe and comply with performance standards, some laser products – such as hand-held laser pointers – are being misused as toys.

Federal regulations limit the visible light power of hand-held laser pointers to 5 milliwatts (mW), but even at this low limit, a laser aimed directly into the eye can cause temporary flash blindness. Most people have protective reflexes, like blinking or looking away, which will prevent the eye from sustaining permanent injury. But, says the FDA, if the laser beam is reflected off of a mirror or a metallic surface might prevent the eye from reacting quickly enough.

Dare devils who stare into a 5mW beam will likely sustain eye injury.

Lasers stronger than 5mW can cause irreversible eye injury of increasing severity as the power increases. Although they are illegal, and potentially dangerous, these high-powered lasers are available on the internet and in stores. In one case, says the FDA, a child's eyes were damaged from reflected beams after directing a 150mW laser pointer into a mirror. Another child is now legally blind in both eyes after playing with his mother's laser pointer. The FDA believes that eye injuries stemming from laser pointers is under reported.

Another growing problem, says the FDA, are incidents in which pilots are experiencing temporary flash blindness when lasers are aimed at their aircraft. This temporary loss of vision can cause a serious accident. According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data, between 2004 and 2006 there were about 330 cases, but since then more than 26,300 incidents have been reported.

Just in the first nine months of 2015, there have been 5,000 reported incidents.

Shining a laser at an aircraft won't get you a slap on the wrist either. It's a federal crime and those convicted face a maximum penalty of dive years in prison and a $250,000 fine. A 26-year-old California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2014 for aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter and a hospital emergency transport helicopter.

Since they're illegal and potentially dangerous, the FDA generally recommends that consumers avoid buying laser pointers that are stronger than 5mW. Those that choose to ignore those warnings, and purchase laser pointers, should use them safely. Don't point them at people, reflective surfaces, or aircrafts and don't allow them to be used by children.

For more information about laser pointers, visit the FDA website or contact the Division of Industry and Consumer Education (DICE) at DICE@ fda.hhs.gov, 800-638-2041 or 301-796-7100.