Powerful, low-cost laser pointers are becoming more common. A laser pointer might look like a toy – but it can be very harmful.
Laser pointers can cause permanent blindness if shone into the eye. Normally with very bright lights, our reflex to squint, close or avert our eyes protects us. But powerful lasers can cause permanent damage before we can react.
- Never deliberately stare into the beam from a laser pointer.
- Do not aim a laser pointer at people, and especially not at eyes.
- Do not give laser pointers to children as toys.
- Do not aim laser pointers at mirrors or other reflecting surfaces.
- Never point a laser at a driver or anyone operating machinery or vehicles.
Lasers in New Zealand should be classified according to how dangerous they are. The classes are set out in the New Zealand Laser Safety Standard.
Class 1 and Class 2 lasers are considered safe – our eyes are protected by our reflex to look away and blink. The output power of these pointers should be no more than 1 milliwatt (1 mW)
Do not use a laser pointer more powerful than Class 2, or that you don’t know the classification of. These lasers can be dangerous.
Many laser pointers now available aren’t classified, but would fall within Class 3B or even Class 4. Class 3B lasers can cause permanent eye damage before you can react. Class 4 lasers can burn skin. Unfortunately, tests conducted in New Zealand and overseas have found that that the labelling on many pointers, especially the cheaper ones, is wrong. Pointers advertised or labelled as having a power less than 1 mW are frequently found to be much more powerful. This is an additional reason to be very careful with laser pointers.
The government has passed new regulations to control the import, supply and acquisition of potentially harmful laser pointers (those with a power greater than 1 mW, which includes all Class 3 and 4 laser pointers).
Dangers of powerful lasers
As well as the risk of permanent eye injury, someone who has a laser pointed at their eye, even briefly, will have ‘flash blindness’.
Flash blindness causes temporary loss of vision, and possibly after-images in the affected eye. It can be distracting. It may take only a few minutes to recover from these effects – or it could take several days.
Never shine a laser pointer at an aircraft or other vehicle. You could cause a serious crash.