PITTSFIELD, Mass., April 21 -- The FDA is zeroing in on "overpowered" laser pointers amid concerns about their potential to cause eye damage and aircraft disasters, at the same time that online vendors -- especially from overseas -- are apparently cashing in on the popular devices.
Strictly speaking, laser pointers aren't illegal in the US. But the FDA issued a warning in February to US consumers against buying "overpowered laser pointers and similar devices."
Jerry Dennis, an FDA consumer safety officer who monitors lasers, said, "'Overpowered' to us means more than Class IIIa emissions, which is 5-mW output power, because laser products promoted for pointing applications may not exceed Class IIIa emissions."
FDA's legal authority is over the products and their manufacturers, not the buyers, Dennis said. However, since "overpowered" lasers exceed hazard Class IIIa and produce Class IIIb emissions greater than 5 mW, they would be subject to registration requirements in some states, which could impose penalties for failure to register Class IIIb lasers. Plus, buyers risk losing their money if the illegal product is refused entry into the US or destroyed at the border.
Dennis said many overpowered laser pointers sold through the mail have been stopped at the borders by FDA imports officers and in ports of entry, and that the agency is taking action to investigate manufacturers and distributors it learns about, either on its own or as a result of industry or citizen inquiries.
Even non-overpowered, 5-mW laser pointers, or pens, are under FDA scrutiny. Several years ago, when the price of red laser pointers dropped and these products became very popular, the FDA issued a press release advising that although they can be used very safely as lecture pointers, they should not be treated as toys, used recklessly or given to children.
'Not a harmless prank'
"The light energy that laser pointers can aim into the eye can be more damaging than staring directly into the sun," it said.
The Laser Institute of America (LIA) recounts how this lesson was brought home in the fall of 1996 when a 16-year-old girl was illuminated in the eye from the beams of laser pointers used as pranks. She experienced two momentary exposures, one while performing a cheerleading routine and again while walking down a hallway. She told her parents that after the first exposure, everything appeared green, and after the second, she was temporarily unable to see from her right eye.
"While this is one of the most dramatic examples to date, there are numerous reports of similar, momentary exposures across the US and the UK," the LIA said in a statement. "While it seems clear such brief exposures can cause only brief effects, there is no reason to ever shine a pointer toward someone. (UK standards approve only laser pointers classified as Class 2, those with maximum output power of 1 mW and beam wavelengths of between 400 and 700 nm.)
The LIA and the American Academy of Ophthalmology have also received reports of people exposed for longer periods, including two verified retinal injuries caused by intentionally staring into pointers. Of course, apply that to someone who is attempting to drive, or to pilot an aircraft, especially a crowded one, and the stakes get even higher.
"Safety professionals are especially concerned about secondary effects, those experienced during critical activities such as driving down a busy highway," the LIA said. "If the driver lost control, due to either a split-second visual effect or a psychological effect (startle or panic), the consequences could be dire. There are reports of pilots who have had to look away or hand control of a landing airplane over to a copilot after similar incidents from more powerful light-show lasers."
The FDA's major concern, Dennis said, is the promotion and sale of high-powered and medical lasers over the Internet. "In many cases, these products are intended for use only by licensed medical professionals or trained operators and require FDA approval or market clearance."
He added, "Visual impairment or distraction of a pilot is certainly an FDA concern, in light of the recent reports of aircraft illumination by lasers; however, we are also concerned about other accidents that can occur when people involved in vision-critical activities are distracted."
Although the FDA is monitoring sales of the pointers, it is considering no new regulations to address their sale or use at this time, Dennis said.
But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did issue regulations, shortly after a New Jersey man living near Newark International Airport was apprehended by the FBI for what he maintained was recreational use of a Class IIIa laser. (For a quick refresher of what might happen if you're caught wielding a laser pointer in the vicinity of a US airport, and a response from the US manufacturer of the laser involved, see: "Handheld Laser 'Not a Deathray'" (Photonics.com, Jan. 7, 2005).
"Recent research conducted by the FAA . . . in Oklahoma City has found that some lasers, when shined into a plane's cockpit, could temporarily disorient or disable a pilot during critical stages of flight such as landing or takeoff," said Transportation Secretary Norman Moleta at a "Lasers in the Cockpit Media Event" held there on Jan. 12. "Even worse, in a few cases, these lasers can cause permanent eye damage for those who look directly into the beam.
"Shining these lasers at an airplane is not a harmless prank," Moleta said. "It is stupid and dangerous. You are putting other people at risk, and law enforcement authorities are going to seek you out, and if they catch you, they are going to prosecute you."
Since then, the FAA requires all pilots to immediately report any laser sightings to air traffic controllers. Controllers are then required to share the reports through the Federal Domestic Events Network, or DEN. The DEN is a phone bridge monitored by safety, security and law enforcement personnel.
Once laser incidents are posted on the network, air traffic controllers are required to work with police to identify the source of the lasers, the goal being to get police quickly to the scene.
A day after Moleta urged pilots to report hazardous laser beams aimed at aircraft (technically, it's a felony to shine a laser beam into the cockpit of an aircraft), the US military said it was testing a system to beam red and green lasers at aircraft in the Washington area as a warning when they enter restricted airspace. (Washington Post, Jan. 14, 2005).
According to the Washington Post article, the plan created confusion among pilots, who said they were unsure "whether they would be able to tell the difference between a commercial laser used by someone playing at home and one operated by the North American Aerospace Defense Command."
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) developed the ground-based laser system, which sends out low-intensity beams of red and green light to warn pilots who can't be reached by radio that they are flying without permission in designated airspace. The lasers will reportedly only be used when the military personnel operating them can visually identify the intended aircraft. Pilots who are "illuminated" by this system are violating restricted airspace and are expected to immediately turn around, fly away from the laser and contact air traffic control. Failure to do so could result in use of force by the military.
NORAD said it wanted to use its Visual Warning System (VWS) for all aircraft deviating into restricted airspace because it is a safer way to signal pilots than the current method of dropping flares near unauthorized planes, but that until it got approval it would test lasers only on military aircraft in the Washington area.
The VWS consists of at least seven turrets, each housing a red and a green laser, placed around the Capital region. The 1.5-watt lasers are diffused through lenses to produce wide, low-intensity beams covering an area roughly 100-feet in diameter 10 nautical miles from the turret. The lasers are visible at distances up to 20 nm. Each turret is connected to a command center and will be operated by military personnel.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) had a chance to see the system, which begun undergoing testing in December, during an in-flight demonstration on April 13. The AOPA reported on April 14, "The unique red-red-green light sequence of the VWS was bright enough to be seen, but not so bright as to be blinding or excessively distracting, even inside the cockpit of a small general aviation aircraft." (View a 23-second AOPA video of the VWS at: www.aopa.org/whatsnew/newsitems/2005/050414laser.html)
The AOPA said although the VWS is set to be operational in the next month or so, there's still work to be done to ensure its effectiveness.
Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs, said, "The VWS will definitely get a pilot's attention, but understanding what it means is the challenge that security officials need to address. It could be a useful tool in preventing unintentional violations of the restricted airspace, but security officials and the FAA must educate pilots on what it means and how to react." He added that AOPA is committed to helping with that effort.
Don't say we never warned you
A Google search for "laser pointer" recently yielded 870,000 Web sites (270,000 for "60 mW laser pointer") -- primarily vendors of the devices, with a smattering of sites about health warnings. First billing in the results went consistently to a sponsored link from Wicked Lasers, run by an entrepreneur in Shanghai.
If the search results are overwhelming, members of the very active Candlepower Forums, devoted to the use of laser pointers along with flashlights, arc flashlights, headlamps and other portable light sources, will enthusiastically answer visitors' questions. But a qualifying, albeit somewhat noncommittal, warning in large-font red type (dated April 17) greets those who enter the "Lasers" topic area:
"The Laser forum is provided for the unique aspect of lasers. While having some similarities to other portable lights, it's unique aspects require consideration of hazard and safety in use and involves legal consideration in application and construction," it reads in part.
Wicked Lasers, the Shanghai laser pointer vendor, sells green lasers (which are about 50 times brighter than red lasers) from 15 mW ($99.99) to what it calls "extreme lasers," which emit up to 95 mW ($499.99) and require a password and "statement of intended use" before they are ordered. (When asked by e-mail what it considered proper intended use, "firstname.lastname@example.org" replied, "This laser is only for medical, educational and industrial purposes. Any other use is not recommended and very dangerous. Shining a laser at an airplane is a felony in the United States.") Its Web site says typical proper applications include "acupuncture, dentistry, airplane engine bird deterrent, gun mount, fiber optic cable locator, large-animal deterrent, presentations, architecture, search and rescue, forensic science, crop protector, movie laser beam prop, crystal art jewelry, light shows and gene cell therapy."
But satisfied Wicked Lasers customer Sgt. David Maiolo, in a prominent testimonial on its home page, wrote: "I am deployed at Baghdad in OIF 3. . . . This is a great alternative to tracer fire to direct troops or a great way to paint a target; also a great intimidation to our enemies overseas. We were thinking of ordering one for each platoon. in our co."
Going, going, gone
Overpowered laser pointers were reportedly once being sold on eBay, but searches for "laser" on the online auction site/marketplace produced listings, on various days, of only Class IIIa lasers and related items (including, recently, two Melles Griot GreNe [green helium-neon] lasers the seller said he or she found in "a pile of salvage" -- one 1 mW, the other 5 mW at 543 nm).
As recently as a week or two ago, Wicked Lasers prominently displayed an " eBay Power Seller" logo, but it has since been removed. An eBay spokesman said in a telephone interview that he doesn't know if any overpowered lasers are being sold or were ever sold on the site.
"EBay's policy has always been: If it's illegal to sell off eBay, we don't want it on eBay," he said. "EBay works closely with the FDA on a number of different things, so I presume if they were changing a policy about a specific type of laser and it was not legal in the US, we would do everything in our power to build filters that would catch listings for items that are illegal to sell and remove them. We work with them to create rules and tools within the marketplace to find illegal items."
An item has to be actually listed on eBay before it can be filtered and pulled, though.
The FDA said it is also concerned about the sale of weaker laser pointers that manufacturers or users modify to make them more powerful.
"Modified products probably do not have adequate instructions for safe use and were not designed with required safety features to protect the public from hazardous emissions," Dennis said. "Further, the people using them do not have adequate training in the use of Class IIIb laser products to protect themselves and others. We would add that people who attempt to modify the lasers also run a pretty good chance of breaking them in the process so they do not work at all."
Wicked Lasers tells visitors to its Web site, "Our lasers are 100 percent unmodified," and warns: "Some sellers modify lasers by turning up the 'pot.' Other sellers claim their 'pot' moves during transit, thus increasing the power of their lasers to over 40 mW! Do not fall victim to some of these sellers. Our lasers are manufactured at their designated output power. Absolutely no modification work is ever performed on our lasers."
Charles W. Clark, chief of the Electron and Optical Physics Division, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), said his office recently purchased five overpowered laser pointers from an online vendor.
"It's useful having a good high-power portable laser for scientific lecture demonstrations and for line of instrumentation and so on," he said. "As an engineering achievement, it's extraordinary that anyone can produce something that emits 60 mW of green light in a portable device the size of an ordinary laser pointer and sell it for about $200. They certainly do produce 10 times the power of the lower-level laser pointers."
Less powerful than a lightbulb
Clark said he uses the pointers "in science tricks, to delight people," for example, to demonstrate basic measurement of optical metrology.
"Disseminating the meaning and importance of our work is an important part of my job function, and we often have tours of school groups and need to describe the properties of light in a way that people find appealing and to which they respond enthusiastically," he said. For example, he likes to hold a laser up to a black balloon and turn it on, causing the balloon to pop: "The laser is putting out too much power and burns a hole in the balloon," he said.
Clark said although light from a 60-mW laser seems bright, in fact it is a small fraction of the actual power of the ordinary light sources we're more familiar with.
"Sixty mW in a decimal representation would be 0.06 watts, or about 1/16th of a watt. A lightbulb in a fixture in your home puts out 100 watts. That's 1600 times as much optical power as a laser," Clark said. "But if you hold a balloon up to a lightbulb, you will wait a long time before it pops."
The difference, he said, is that with a laser, all the power is in one direction and the spectral intensity, although the absolute optical power is relatively small, seems "unbelievably much brighter. It illustrates a very important principle of quantum mechanics in modern engineering that can be demonstrated in a very visual way with a laser."
But he agreed that laser pointers definitely are not toys, and that they are potentially harmful.
"I'm not advocating everyone walk around and use this stuff," he said. "Frankly, we prefer to use these lower-powered green lasers or even red ones. At lower powers, you can see the same sort of phenomena, but not to the same degree of detail and not as spectacularly. But if the beam of this laser went in your eye, you'd have serious problems. I would never give one to a 10-year-old, and I wouldn't shine it on the audience to get people's attention. 5 mW in itself is a hazardous source of light, not to be toyed with. It would be very, very bad to shine that in someone's eye; it can't be regarded as innocuous."
Clark said NIST staff undergoes FDA laser safety training, and that the FDA classification system is well-respected. "Sixty-mW lasers are class IIIb devices, which in an industrial environment are subject to a level of safety precautions that are strongly adhered to," he said.
As for waving laser pointers at airplanes, he said: "Don't do that."
The FDA warning can be found at www.fda.gov/cdrh/comp/internetlasers.html. For more information about potential eye damage from lasers, see: www.eyenet.org