Laser pointers produce too much energy, pose risks for the careless

NIST study finds 90% of green lasers are in violation of federal regs

Commercial grade green and red laser pointers emit energy far beyond what is safe, posing skin, eye and fire hazards.

That was the conclusion of a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study on the properties of handheld laser devices that tested 122 of the devices and found that nearly 90% of green pointers and about 44% of red pointers tested were out of federal safety regulation compliance.

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"Handheld lasers (laser pointers) have been around for decades. However recent advances in laser technology have had a dramatic impact, enabling low-cost, high power laser pointers at a variety of visible wavelengths. These powerful lasers have found their way into society in large numbers and are being operated by people who may be unfamiliar with their potential for eye injury, resulting in increased reports of retinal injuries," stated NIST researchers Joshua Hadler and Marla Dowell in a paper on laser safety they presented this week at the International Laser Safety Conference.

Green lasers generate green light from infrared light. Ideally, the device should be designed and manufactured to confine the infrared light within the laser housing. However, according to the new NIST results, more than 75 percent of the devices tested emitted infrared light in excess of the CFR limit, NIST stated.

"The NIST tests were conducted on randomly selected commercial laser devices labeled as Class IIIa or 3R and sold as suitable for demonstration use in classrooms and other public spaces. Such lasers are limited under the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) to 5 milliwatts maximum emission in the visible portion of the spectrum and less than 2 milliwatts in the infrared portion of the spectrum.

About half the devices tested emitted power levels at least twice the CFR limit at one or more wavelengths. The highest measured power output was 66.5 milliwatts, more than 10 times the legal limit. The power measurements were accurate to within 5%," the NIST researchers stated.

Laser devices that exceed 3R limits may be hazardous and should be subject to more rigorous controls such as training, to prevent injury, according to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Green lasers in particular have gotten a bad reputation for being used by chuckleheads who think it is fun to point them at low flying aircraft.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last May said the number of reported laser incidents nationwide had risen for the fifth consecutive year to 3,592 in 2011.  Pointing a laser at an aircraft can cause temporary blindness or make airliner pilots take evasive measures to avoid the laser light.

The FAA has begun to impose civil penalties against individuals who point a laser device at an aircraft. The maximum penalty for one laser strike is $11,000, and the FAA has proposed civil penalties against individuals for multiple laser incidents, with $30,800 the highest penalty proposed to date. In many of these cases, pilots have reported temporary blindness or had to take evasive measures to avoid the intense laser light. 

The FAA says the increase in annual laser reports is likely due to a number of factors, including the availability of inexpensive laser devices on the Internet; increased power levels that enable lasers to reach aircraft at higher altitudes; more pilot reporting of laser strikes; and the introduction of green and blue lasers, which are more easily seen than red lasers.

The FBI has said: "Those responsible for lasering aircraft fit two general profiles. Consistently, it's either minors with no criminal history or older men with criminal records. The teens are usually curious or fall victim to peer pressure.  The older men simply have a reckless disregard for the safety of others. There are also intentional acts of laser pointing by human traffickers or drug runners seeking to thwart airborne surveillance.

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