The dangers of laser “toys”

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

A recent Nature paper describes the cases of five children in the UK who received eye injuries as a result of playing with laser “toys.” These children, between the ages of eight and 15, suffered reduced vision and had identifiable damage to their retinas. All reported playing with these so-called toys before their eye problems began.

In the United States, the FDA regulates laser devices, including laser pointers. Laser pointers should be labeled with the correct output power and class. Handheld lasers of any color, or wavelength, that have a power output of greater than 5 milliwatts can pose significant eye hazards and should not be used, especially by children.

Unfortunately, anyone can buy a laser that exceeds 5 mW and believe he or she is getting an FDA-compliant laser pointer. The higher-power devices look like and can be priced like laser pointers. It is easy to find a 50-mW green laser on the Internet for $10. Many times these lasers are incorrectly labeled and emit more power than their label indicates.

At Fermilab, we require that laser pointers be less than 5mW (Class 3a or 3R) and suggest that they be less than 1 mW (Class 2). The Fermilab Stockroom stocks Class 2 red laser pointers that have been approved by the ESH&Q Section; the stock number is 1375-2300. As Fermilab’s laser safety officer, I am also available to measure the power of any laser pointers.

Outside of the lab, you should be cautious when buying or using a laser pointer. Here are some ways to choose an appropriate laser pointer and avoid eye injuries:

  • Purchase products only from reputable vendors to ensure the quality of the product.
  • Read manufacturer specifications to make sure you are purchasing a product with the proper output.
  • Purchase only lasers below 5 mW and labeled as Class 1, 2, 3a or 3R.
  • Do not stare into the beam.
  • Ensure children are supervised by an adult when using laser pointers.
  • Do not point the beam at people or shiny objects. The reflection can cause damage.
  • Do not point a laser at aircraft of any kind. It is a federal crime.

If you have any questions about laser safety, I’m here to help. Contact me at mquinn@fnal.gov or at x5175.

Matt Quinn, laser safety officer