A Look at Laser Pointers: Are They Dangerous?

These small hand-held instruments that are used in lectures and presentations may seem harmless, but they are more dangerous than they appear, according to the (FDA) Food & Drug Administration.  Laser pointers are the same devices that have been recently used to distract airline pilots, which had been reported by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

The most recent incident occurred earlier this year at a Nashville airport in which the pilot and co-pilot were targeted by a green laser beam.  According to published reports, both pilots were temporarily blinded by the beam at 3000 feet when the incident happened.  The FAA admits that over the past 10 years, there have been hundreds of reported laser beam incidents targeting pilots, and eye injuries have occurred as a result.  

An eye injury occurred in l995 when a pilot on Southwest Airlines departing from McCarranInternationalAirport in Las Vegas was flashed by a laser beam.  The pilot told reporters he was blinded temporarily, suffered pain in one eye and was unbalanced for several minutes.  

Laser pointers can emit a light wavelength of 670nm, which means nanometers or billionths of a meter; the shorter the wavelength, the longer the range.  Pointers have three wavelengths:  670nm wavelength emits a light range of 1,000 feet, 650nm emits a light range of 2,000 feet, and 635nm a light range of 4,000 feet.
 In l997, the FDA warned consumers about laser pointers stating that “they’re generally safe when used by teachers and lecturers to highlight areas on a chart or screen.  The light energy from laser pointers can be more damaging than starring directly into the sun.” 

As a result, the FDA required a warning be placed on laser pointers indicating that they can be hazardous to the eyes.

The AmericanAcademy of Ophthalmology does not believe that laser pointers are harmful to the eyes.  The Academy says its opinion is based on a clinical study completed in 2000 by the Mayo Clinic’s Ophthalmology department.  Findings indicated that risk to the human eye from a commercially available beam measuring one, two, and five mW, when directed into three patient’s eyes for 15 minutes, possessed no harm.