Recommendations for the Use of Laser Pointers

Teachers and lecturers have used laser pointers for years to highlight key areas on charts and screens during visual presentations. Recently, with reduced cost of manufacturing, the consumer now has 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. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning in December 1997 on the possibility of eye injury to children from hand-held laser pointers (see attachment). 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 laser pointers can deliver into the eye may be more damaging than staring directly into the sun.

Momentary exposure from a laser pointer can cause discomfort and temporary visual impairment, such as glare, flashblindness 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. Flashblindness 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 driving a car or flying an aircraft.

There have been other disturbing reports involving the misuse of laser pointers, including spectators aiming laser lights at athletes during sporting events, cars illuminated on highways, pilots illuminated in-flight, children staring directly into the laser beam, and arrests made after police interpreted the red beam to be a laser-sighted weapon. Most of these incidents can be considered malicious misuse and demonstrate a lack of understanding for the potential consequences of laser illumination.

The FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health regulates the manufacture of commercial laser products. Manufacturers are required to classify laser products as Class I, II, IIIA, IIIB, or IV; certify by means of product labels; and submit a report demonstrating that requirements of compliance standards are met.