Lasers are cool! Just ask anyone who has seen Luke Skywalker battle Darth Vader with a lightsaber.
Cool as they might be, the highly-concentrated light from lasers -- even those in toys -- can be dangerous, causing serious eye injuries and even blindness when operated unsafely, or without certain controls. And not just to the person using a laser, but to anyone within range of the laser beam.
Because of this, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a draft guidance document on the safety of toy laser products.
According to Dan Hewett, health promotion officer at FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, "A beam shone directly into a person's eye can injure it in an instant -- especially if the laser is a powerful one."
However, laser injuries usually don't hurt, and vision can deteriorate slowly over time. Eye injuries caused by laser light may go unnoticed, for days and even weeks, and could be permanent, he says.
A laser creates a powerful, targeted beam of electromagnetic radiation that is used in many products, from music players and printers to eye-surgery tools. FDA regulates radiation-emitting electronic products, including lasers, and sets radiation-safety standards that manufacturers must meet. Hewett explains that this includes all laser products that are marketed as toys.
Some examples of laser toys are:
- lasers mounted on toy guns that can be used for "aiming;"
- spinning tops that project laser beams while they spin;
- hand-held lasers used during play as "lightsabers;" and
- lasers intended for entertainment that create optical effects in an open room.
Toys with lasers are of particular interest to the FDA because it's often children who are injured by these products, says Hewett. He notes that because advertisers promote them as playthings, parents and kids alike may believe they're safe to use.
"For toys to be considered minimal risk, we recommend that the levels of radiation and light not exceed the limits of Class 1, which is the lowest level in regulated products," Hewett says. Lasers used for industrial and other purposes often require higher radiation levels, he explains. But in toys, those levels are unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
In recent years, lasers have increased markedly in power and have gone way down in price. And while adults may buy a laser pointer for use in work, kids often buy them for amusement.
"Low-cost, compact laser pointers used to be quite low in power," Hewett says; but, in the last 10 years, many laser pointers have increased in power 10-fold and more. The fact that lasers can be dangerous may not be evident, particularly to the children who use them as toys, or to the adults who supervise them.
What to do
FDA offers these tips to keep in mind when handling lasers:
- Never aim or shine a laser directly at anyone, including animals. The light energy from a laser aimed into the eye can be hazardous, perhaps even more than staring directly into the sun.
- Do not aim a laser at any reflective surface.
- Remember that the startling effect of a bright beam of light can cause serious accidents when aimed at a driver in a car or otherwise negatively affect someone who is engaged in other activity (such as playing sports).
- Look for a statement that it complies with 21 CFR (the Code of Federal Regulations) Subchapter J on the label.
"If you buy a laser toy or pointer and you don't see this information in the labeling, it's best not to make any assumptions about its safety," Hewett says.