A comprehensive resource, for safe and responsible laser pointer usage
Frequently Asked Questions -- General interest questions
LASER POINTER HAZARDS
What other laser pointer problems are there?
- Laser pointers have been aimed at cars and trucks. Just as with aircraft, this can distract or temporarily blind a driver -- obviously unsafe.
- At sporting events, spectators have aimed laser pointers at players such as football goalies. This is unsportsmanlike (to say the least!) as well as a potential eye hazard for the player.
- At concerts and movie theaters. sometimes an audience member will think it is funny to wave the laser dot around on the stage or screen.
Such misuse will backfire. When ordinary citizens are distracted, or annoyed, or temporarily blinded, they are more inclined to support restrictions or bans on laser pointers.
Have laser pointers ever caused a vehicle or aircraft accident?
Lasers have been misused by aiming at vehicles or aircraft for decades. This website’s author is aware of vehicle-aiming incidents as early as 1981. Regarding aircraft, from 2004 when the FAA began requiring pilots to report laser illuminations, through December 2014, there have been over 20,000 incidents in the U.S. where lasers were aimed at pilots.
In the discussion below, “accident” is defined as an incident that results in actual damage to the vehicle, aircraft or property; or that results in a bodily injury (e.g. anything beyond a claimed laser light injury to the eyes). In contrast, “incident’ is something potentially hazardous or dangerous, which does not result in property damage or bodily injury.
For example, laser light in a pilot’s eyes may have caused a missed approach and a subsequent go-around. While this incident is cause for serious concern, it did not result in an aircraft accident .
Lasers causing vehicle accidents
- The website author is aware of one documented accident caused by a laser pointer. This comes from a 1999 Springfield, Missouri laser pointer ordinance that references a local accident: “a three-car collision, where a young man pointed a laser light into the car ahead of him and startled the driver, causing him to slam on his brakes and create a pileup.”
- The author has heard informally of five vehicle accidents in France, around 2014, caused by laser visual interference but has not yet been able to find documentation.
This website’s has a page that lists some non-aviation laser incidents. The stories on this page have tags that include Car. Motorist. Road rage and Driver. Clicking on these tags to find all relevant articles brings up stories where vehicles are targeted by lasers. In some of these, there are incidents including claimed eye injuries. There are even some laser-related deaths, such as when youths suspected of lasering a police car died after being chased by police. or when taxi drivers, angry at teens aiming lasers at them, stabbed a youth to death .
However, as of April 2015 there are no stories listed where the light from a laser directly or indirectly caused a vehicular accident, except the 1999 Springfield, Missouri accident described above.
Lasers causing aircraft accidents
- As of April 2015, there have been no documented cases of the light from a laser causing aircraft accidents (e.g. a crash or injury-producing incident).
Anyone with links to documented cases of vehicle or aircraft accidents is asked to email the author (see “Contact us” link at the bottom of any page).
When does a laser pointer get powerful enough to be dangerous?
There is no specific threshold between a "safe" laser beam, a potentially hazardous one, and a clearly dangerous beam. The following are some guidelines.
Bright Light Hazard
Even a "legal" (in the U.S.) 5 milliwatt laser pointer can be a potential hazard if the light distracts or temporarily flashblinds a person such as a pilot. This is why you NEVER aim a laser pointer at an aircraft. or the driver of a vehicle.
For direct damage to the eye, the exact severity will be due to many factors: beam power, exposure time, beam/eye relative motion, distance from the laser, and retinal injury location.
- If a person deliberately stares into a laser, even a small 1 milliwatt beam could cause a spot on the retina.
- Fortunately, the eye's natural "aversion response" causes a person to involuntarily blink and/or turn away from a bright light. Taking this into account, an accidental exposure to a 5 milliwatt beam is considered tolerable, as long as the person is not overriding their blink reflex.
- After some point, even blinking and moving isn't fast enough to prevent injury. As a very rough approximation for laser pointer use, above 10 milliwatts the potential hazard from general use outweighs the benefit of a brighter beam.
- At around 100 milliwatts. an accidental exposure at close range will cause a change to the retina which can be defined as an eye injury. The victim may or may not notice it depending on where the spot is on the retina. The injury may heal after a few days or weeks if the exposure is not too severe.
At around 150 milliwatts. the beam from a laser can be felt on the skin, depending on the beam focus, skin color (absorption), etc. At roughly 500 milliwatts. the laser's beam begins to be a skin burn hazard if the person is within a few meters of the beam.
Incidentally, even powerful industrial lasers cannot cause deep burns, severed limbs, gun-type injuries or other effects seen in science fiction movies. While multi-watt laser beams are definitely serious eye hazards, they are ineffective at causing incapacitating body injuries.
On a CSI:Miami episode, a laser pointer brought down a plane by injuring the pilots' eyes about 2 miles away. Is this possible?
The CSI:Miami scenario is not plausible. A legal, off-the-shelf laser pointer like the one on the show has a maximum power of 5 mW. A beam from this laser is a distraction to pilots out to about 2.2 miles. However, the light level would not cause veiling glare, flashblindness or (especially) eye injuries. The producers and researchers for CSI:Miami took a lot of dramatic liberties in this case! (The episode is "Money Plane". first aired March 7, 2005.)
However, it is good to get the public informed about the general idea that laser pointers can potentially be hazardous. This is why you should never aim a laser at or near an aircraft.
Aircraft can look like stars. What is the best way to point out stars in the night sky?
A slow-moving, far-away aircraft can look like a star. If you are doing astronomy pointing at a "star talk", use the laser pointer to circle unknown or faint objects. Don't point directly at them unless you are sure it is a star (i.e. Orion's belt or the Big Dipper handle). For more information on star pointing applications, see this page.
In the U.S. it is illegal to aim at the flight path of an aircraft. Given that just about anywhere in the sky there could be a flight path, is this a problem for legal laser use?
The U.S. law signed by President Obama in Feb. 2012 makes it illegal to knowingly aim laser pointer beams at an aircraft, or at the flight path of such an aircraft.
Fortunately for amateur astronomers or other legitimate outdoor users, there is little chance of having the flight path clause invoked by prosecutors, for the following reasons:
- The cases that are brought for trial are ones where someone deliberately aimed at an aircraft. Someone on the aircraft saw beams coming near or at the aircraft. They then either called police, or they were the police.
- In most prosecuted cases, there are multiple beam illuminations involved -- e.g. a laser is tracking the aircraft. It is very rare for any single-illumination incidents to be identified or prosecuted.
- Usually the person prosecuted has some sort of antisocial characteristic such as a criminal record, being in a gang, being hostile with arresting officers, etc.
In an abstract sense, any laser beam in the sky is probably touching some aircraft's flight path. But this has not been the type of case that worries safety experts, or the type of case that prosecutors bring to trial.
LASER POINTER TECHNOLOGY
How is a laser pointer different from other lasers?
there is no generally accepted definition of a laser "pointer".
In the U.S. the federal FDA/CDRH indicates that pointers are "hand-held lasers that are promoted for pointing out objects or locations" with output power less than 5 milliwatts. According to FDA, promotion of lasers above 5 milliwatts "for pointing and amusement" violates FDA requirements and U.S. law.
(Some may consider this to be a loophole. If a hand-held laser is not promoted for pointing or amusement purposes, then it can legally be sold.)
Starting in 2010, FDA/CDRH appears to be closing the loophole by defining handheld portable lasers as "surveying, leveling and alignment" (SLA) lasers. Since FDA/CDRH has authority over SLA lasers, the agency may use this new regulatory interpretation to limit the sale of handheld portable lasers over 5 milliwatts. For more information, see the page FDA authority over laser pointers and handheld lasers .
In New South Wales (Australia), a pointer is a Schedule 1 Prohibited Weapon: "A laser pointer, or any other similar article, consists of a hand-held, battery-operated device with a power output of more than 1 milliwatt, designed or adapted to emit a laser beam and that may be used for the purposes of aiming, targeting or pointing."
In Victoria (Australia), a pointer is also a prohibited weapon. It is defined as: "A hand-held, battery-operated article designed or adapted to emit a laser beam with an accessible emission limit of greater than 1 mW."
If one wants to own a laser with greater power, it is easy enough to do so. There is the inconvenience of having to run off of mains (AC) power, but then again AC outlets are everywhere, including automobiles (using a $20 inverter).
Also, if an evil person wanted to do harm with a laser beam, it would be easy for them to use a regular laser. A ban or restriction on pointers would have no effect on them.
What is the maximum allowed power?
There is no "maximum" power in the U.S. and many other countries. A person can buy a laser of whatever power they want, even tens of watts.
For use by the general public as a laser "pointer", the maximum is supposed to be 5 milliwatts (U.S.) or 1 milliwatt (U.K.). Obviously, much more powerful handheld lasers are available. As long as they are not advertised for pointing or beam-display purposes, sale is legal in the U.S. Also, it can be difficult (or low priority) for law enforcement to track down illegally-marked or distributed lasers.
For more information, see the Rules for U.S. consumers page.
What laser pointers are legal?
The short answer is that laser pointers under 5 milliwatts (U.S.) or under 1 milliwatt (U.K.) are legal for sale. Details are below.
Manufacturing and sales: Lasers sold to the public as "pointers" or for pointing purposes must be less than 5 milliwatts (5/1000 of a watt). This power is high enough so the laser "dot" is sufficiently visible for pointing out things, and is low enough to not be an eye hazard under conditions of accidental exposure. It is not intended or legal to sell lasers for pointing that are 5 milliwatts or more. Beginning in 2010, the FDA/CDRH is classifying handheld portable lasers as "surveying, leveling and alignment" (SLA) lasers, and may be trying to further restrict sales of lasers above 5 milliwatts based on this new rules interpretation. For more information, see the pages Rules for U.S. sellers and FDA authority .
Ownership: There is no federal law against owning a laser, of any power. (Some states and localities may have their own laws .) Therefore, at the federal level, an "illegal laser pointer" is illegal only from the manufacturer's or seller's standpoint. An "illegal" laser is too powerful to be sold or promoted for pointing purposes, or it may be lacking required safety features. If such a laser is sold to end users, the manufacturer may be required to do a recall, repair, replacement or refund. It is then up to the end user whether they wish to comply with the recall, repair, replacement or refund notice. [NOTE: This analysis is based on LaserPointerSafety.com's research. If you need specific legal advice, consult a lawyer with experience in this area.] For more information, see the page Rules for U.S. consumers .
In the United Kingdom, laser pointers must be under 1 milliwatt. Pointers above this power will be seized on import; for example, in November 2008 a shipment of 5 milliwatt laser pointers was seized .
What should I do if I have an "illegal" pointer or high-powered laser?
From a safety standpoint, what you should do depends on the laser's power. There is no need for a laser over 5 milliwatts for most pointing purposes. For astronomy pointing purposes, you can see the beam of a green lasers in the 4 to 20 mW range. Even for most experimenters and enthusiasts, there is usually no need for above 50 mW (exceptions: popping/burning experiments or home laser shows).
If you have a laser in this "extra caution range" of roughly 5 to 20-50 mW, you can discard the laser if you want, or use it with extra added care. Be especially careful not to annoy or injure bystanders. It is one thing if you are hurt, it is another thing to involve someone else.
If the laser is above 20-50 milliwatts, hazards are increased. Except for mature and careful experimenters, we recommend that you safely discard the laser. LaserPointerSafety.com does not recommend that the general public own or use Class 4 lasers, which are 500 milliwatts and above (above 1/2 watt). If you must have a high-powered laser for some reason, be sure to read and always follow the safety warnings.
There is good information on the page Don't aim at head and eyes ; be sure to download and read the appropriate PDF flyer for your laser's power level.
From a legal standpoint, to find out more about whether you can keep an illegally labeled or manufactured laser, see the Rules for U.S. consumers page.
Are high-power laser pointers required to have specific features?
In the United States, lasers above 5 mW (Classes 3B and 4) must have proper labeling, an emission indicator, and an interlock with a key or pin that prevents emission if the pin/key is removed. Note that this means the laser can remain continuously on as long as the pin/key is inserted and the switch or button is turned on (there does not have to be a momentary pushbutton that turns off when pressure is released). Also, lasers above 5 mW cannot be marketed as "laser pointers" or for purposes of surveying, alignment or pointing.
There may be some confusion between the original U.S. laser laws, 21 CFR 1040.10 and 1040.11, and CDRH's Laser Notice #50. which was first issued in 2001 and was updated in 2007. Laser Notice #50 allows U.S. marketing of laser products certified using international standard IEC 60825-1. This removes the requirement for a shutter, and for an emission delay circuit. Also, warning labels can follow IEC instead of CDRH, if desired. This harmonizes U.S. law with international standards.
What is the maximum power needed for laser pointing?
A power of 50 milliwatts is probably the maximum needed power for almost any laser pointing use.
For seeing the laser "dot" on a wall or surface indoors or in dim light, 5 milliwatts of green is fine. The most demanding general-use pointing application is for pointing out stars (NOT airplanes!!), when it is necessary to see the beam in mid-air. It takes more power to see the beam than the dot. For this use 5-25 mW should be fine, with a maximum of 50 mW for use in a large group with clear air (few particulates) in an urban environment.
If you like to pop balloons, ignite matches, or put the laser through textured glass for a private light show in your home, you may want a more powerful laser. But this is no longer a POINTER application.
What laser color is best?
A green laser is the most visible. The eye sees green better (more efficiently ) than other colors. A 5 mW green laser will appear much brighter than a 5 mW red or blue laser.
Note that in terms of eye injury hazards, the color does not matter. More milliwatts means a greater potential eye hazard, no matter what the beam color. (This is for visible lasers; for infrared or ultraviolet lasers, the primary injury area is the cornea and not the retina.)