In a world filled with high tech toys and games for adults and kids alike, such as video games, board games, Lego sets, and more, the one toy we’ve no doubt all played with at some point in our lives is a laser pointer. Originally not meant to be a toy, laser pointers are commonly used in university lectures, business, construction and military work, and maybe to make your cat or dog chase after it.
But, most people don’t realize that laser pointers can actually be very dangerous. Eye professionals have warned that laser pointers are no laughing matter when used improperly. Lasers are tools not toys and like any tool, there are ways to safely handle them to avoid injury. Using power tools often requires safety goggles. Though laser pointers do not, they should be regarded as being on the same levels as power tools. You wouldn’t play with a power tool, so why play with a laser?
How Lasers Damage the Eyes
Be it an accident or on purpose, staring into a laser pointer can cause some serious damage to your eye. The kind of damage caused (permanent or temporary) is determined on a case by case basis. Damage also depends on how strong the laser is.
Easily purchasable lasers available to the general public often range from one to five milliwatts, with five milliwatts being the most powerful and consequently the most harmful laser. Lasers more powerful than five milliwatts are also available, but are not available to the general public. In 2013, Amazon took steps to avoid selling mislabeled lasers and now require all lasers to be pre-approved.
Precautions such as this have to be taken to avoid overpowered laser pointers from being sold because of the damage they can cause. Eye damage is the most common injury associated with laser pointers of any milliwatt. Most people don’t know just how damaging they can be.
The most common laser pointer related eye injury is retinal burning. Staring at a laser pointer head on for even a split second is enough to permanently damage your retina causing macular holes, which will cause loss of central vision.
In the case of a certain 15-year-old boy as reported by the New England Journal of Medicine, after shining a laser into a mirror and hitting his eye repeatedly, his vision was severely impaired. The visual acuity in his left eye seemed to have got the worst of it, causing him to only be able to count fingers held three feet away from him. A visit to his eye doctor revealed a hemorrhage in his left macula.
Children and teens are not the only ones subject to misusing laser pointers. Many adults are also poorly informed when it comes to the dangers of laser pointers, which could explain why so many parents readily buy their children these lasers as toys. Many eye injuries sustained by adults at the hand of a laser pointer are due to children mishandling them.
Laser pointers may be marketed as toys, however be assured that they are not.
What to Do if You Are Hit
As much as we try to avoid getting anything in our eyes, accidents happen. Accidents happen even easier with laser pointers. For example, eyes can be protected using protective goggles under certain circumstances. Lasers, on the other hand are not a physical material, making it hard the shield your eyes from them.
If you find yourself in the unlucky position of having a laser pointed at your eye, the very first thing you do is look away. You may be thinking that this is a ridiculously obvious tip, but the truth is it’s not.
The reason for this emphasis is because our eyes react quickly to red and green lights. So if a red or green laser is pointed directly into your eye, then, yes your instinct will be to look away. However, eyes are much less responsive to violet and blue lights, slowing down our eye’s reaction time.
Our body naturally warns us of injuries when we feel pain or discomfort, but without this it may seem as though the violet and blue laser have had no effect on your eyes. Even if discomfort or vision loss does not become apparent immediately, there is still a chance that your eyes were harmed. The next step is to visit your eye doctor immediately for an examination.
It is important to note, that when your eye first comes into contact with the laser, it way cause temporary blindness or vision loss due to the initial shock of the light. Don’t worry. This is common and often vision will restore itself (though not to its original visual acuity level).
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How to Protect Your Eyes from Laser Pointers
Realistically the only way to protect your eyes from a laser pointer is to understand how to use them properly and safely. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a list of ways to do this:
- Don’t aim laser pointers at anyone, especially at the head or eyes.
- Don’t buy laser pointers for children.
- Make sure the following is labeled on the product:
- a statement that it complies with Chapter 21 CFR (the Code of Federal Regulations)
- the manufacturer or distributor’s name and the date of manufacture
- a warning to avoid exposure to laser radiation
- the class designation, ranging from Class I to IIIa. Class IIIb and IV products should be used only by individuals with proper training and in applications where there is a legitimate need for these high-powered products.
Remember that laser pointers are not toys. They are meant for professional use and should to be used responsibly. Misuse can lead to severe eye damage that cannot be repaired and may affect your vision. Protecting your eyes should be a priority, especially against things like laser pointers where accidents are easily avoidable.