Laser pens and laser pointers

Laser pens (also known as laser pointers) have many legitimate uses. For example they can be used in the classroom, as alignment aids and in construction.

Recently however, the low costs of the lasers has made them popular as toys among children and young adults which has led to the lasers being used in ways that are not appropriate. This has led to them being used in ways that can be dangerous – sometimes causing permanent, life-changing injuries to people’s eyes.

The problem with laser pens

  • Hand-held laser devices, such as laser pointers and laser pens, are increasingly popular, cheap and easily available, making them more accessible for children
  • Many laser pointers are now more powerful than is considered safe1. Tests have shown that many may be 40 to 80 times more powerful than the label implies. Those being sold online may also be much more powerful than stated
  • Children have pointed them at their own eyes during play or out of curiosity, which has led to irreparable damage
  • There are reports of high-power laser pens being shone into the eyes of pilots. There have also been frequent incidences where lasers were shone directly at car and train drivers, with potential to cause a fatal crash.

Why are laser pens dangerous?

  • Laser pens and similar devices have the potential to damage the retina and cause permanent loss of vision
  • Due to technological advances, their power is increasing and there is evidence of both children and adults who have suffered long-term or permanent visual loss. While most of those hurt are teenagers, there is concern that the number of sight-threatening injuries to children is rising
  • Even a brief glance at a laser beam is sufficient to cause long-term or even permanent, irreversible retinal injury. These injuries cannot be treated by medical or surgical means.

Preventing laser pen injuries: be responsible

  • Children may not understand the potential dangers of laser pens. Hand-held laser devices are not toys and should not be given to children as a plaything
  • Don’t buy hand-held laser devices abroad or from websites outside of the UK – they may not comply with safety standards. Please also be aware that laser pens may be stronger than advertised on websites
  • Hand-held laser devices are potentially very dangerous products. Seriously consider if you really need one
  • Don’t shine a laser pointer into the eyes of people or animals and never point laser devices at vehicles
  • Only use hand-held laser devices for their intended purpose
  • Educate your children about the dangers of lasers and the consequences of misusing them
  • Don't hold a laser beam on the skin, as strong laser pointers can cause skin burns.

What does the law say about laser pens?

  • It is currently an offence to shine lasers at pilots, with offenders facing fines of up to £2,500
  • The Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Act 2018 provides for new offences of shining or directing a laser beam towards a vehicle or air traffic facility, for which the maximum penalty would be imprisonment up to five years, an unlimited fine, or both
  • Retailers can be prosecuted by Trading Standards under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 (which stipulates that only safe products should be on general sale). This will generally mean action being taken against sellers of lasers that are more powerful than Class 2. See the government's advice2.

Resources

  • Download a poster produced by Newcastle City Council, supported by RoSPA, CAPT, BFC and BEIS

References

  1. Maximum output power of 1 milliwatt (mW). While the threshold for toys using laser pointers is stricter at just 0.39 mW, many laser pointers do not conform to these safety standards.
  2. This link provides basic information on the properties of laser radiation, the different laser classes and summarises Public Health England’s (PHE) position on the issue of the safety of laser pointers. The laser classification scheme was introduced over 40 years ago to provide guidance to users of lasers. The laser classification scheme in this document is taken from BS EN 60825-1.

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