Caution with laser pointers

Both of these laser pointers look the same, but only one of them meets the 5-milliwatt-maximum requirement. Photo: ES&H

There are potentially significant hazards associated with laser pointers. High-power laser pointers can cause permanent eye damage in less time than it takes to blink. To avoid injuries, people should use laser pointers with a power output of 5 milliwatts or less.

Unfortunately, anyone can buy a laser that exceeds 5 mW thinking he or she is getting an FDA-compliant device. The higher-power devices look like, are marketed as and can be priced like lower-power laser pointers. It is easy to find a 50-mW green-laser pointer on the Internet for $10. At this power, even a quick sweep across an eye can be hazardous.

Manufacturers often use the same external hardware for a range of laser products. The device on the left in the above picture is an FDA-compliant laser pointer with an output of 1 mW. The one on the right is a portable handheld laser rated at 200 mW. Even at Fermilab, several laser pointers labeled as having less than 5 mW of laser power were discovered to exceed the 5-mW limit.

The Fermilab Stock Room stocks Class 2 red-laser pointers that have been approved by ES&H. The stock number is 1375-2300, and the cost is $15.69.

Here are some ways to prevent eye injuries from laser pointers:

  • Inform the laboratory’s laser safety officer if you intend to use a laser at Fermilab that exceeds 5 mW.
  • Be sure to get proper training on laser pointers and an eye exam.
  • Maintain minimum distances between the beam and the audience. See Fermilab ES&H Manual chapter 5062.1.
  • Only purchase products from reputable vendors to ensure the quality of the product.
  • Read manufacturer specifications to make sure you’re purchasing a product with the proper output.
  • Do not stare into the beam.
  • Be sure that children are supervised by an adult when using laser pointers.
  • Do not point the beam at people, vehicles or shiny objects. The beam’s reflection can cause damage.
  • Do not point a laser at aircraft of any kind. It is a federal crime.

Visit this page for more information on crimes involving laser pointers.

If you want to check the power on your laser pointers, I’m available to help. As your laser safety officer, I can measure laser’s power and answer any questions you may have about laser safety. You can reach me at mquinn@fnal.gov or x5175.

Matt Quinn, ES&H laser safety officer