High-Powered Lasers Meant for Labs Prove Dangerous to the Untrained

Expert says dangerous lasers are all coming from overseas, apparently skirting U.S. regulations with no obstacles

By Lisa Parker
|  Thursday, Dec 12, 2013  |  Updated 5:18 PM CDT
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Lasers are used from the boardroom to the operating room, but not all lasers are safe.  NBC 5 Investigates Lisa Parker reports on how some laser pointers can be harmful to those who are handeling them.

Richard Moy

Lasers are used from the boardroom to the operating room, but not all lasers are safe. NBC 5 Investigates Lisa Parker reports on how some laser pointers can be harmful to those who are handeling them.

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The danger connected to high-powered lasers is moving closer to home.

Last week, it happened on the field at the ACC National Football Championship when somebody in the stands focused a green laser light on the helmet of Florida State star quarterback Jameis Winston. Officials stopped play in order to find the perpetrator.

It's the same predatory problem that's happened more than 3,400 times this year to pilots as they sat in a cockpit. A high-powered laser shone into their faces endangers vision and the potential safety of passengers.

Now, that same well-documented danger is moving much closer to home as experts connect the availability of powerful and often illicit lasers to a pattern of serious eye injuries. Some of those injuries first surfaced in a cluster at an eye hospital in Saudi Arabia.

"Suddenly…there were 14 cases that occurred over the course of one year," Dr. Neil Bressler of Johns Hopkins University told NBC5 Investigates. "This frequency brought to our attention that maybe there was something else going on, and that something else was that there were some very powerful lasers available for purchase."

NBC5 Investigates found a myriad high-powered lasers available for purchase with prices that start near $100. Many of the lasers far exceed the federal recommended safe level of 5mW (milliwatts), approved by the federal government for use in laser pointers.

Clips of clearly untrained laser users are prolific on YouTube: people use high-powered lasers to kill spiders, start fires, and burn holes in random objects around the house.

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"I don't see any practical reason to buy these Class Four lasers," Laser Experts President Robert Waltmire told NBC5 Investigates. "They were meant to be used in a laboratory by scientists who know what they're doing [while] wearing protective eyewear in a controlled environment. It's not supposed to be in the hands of some crazy teenager running around school. So these things, they've got to do something."

Waltmire agreed to answer our basic questions about laser safety, but went a step further -- he bought a 1000 mW (1W) laser on eBay for about $300 to show us its power. It was delivered in two days.

Waltmire demonstrated how the laser could burn through electrical tape and cardboard, or light a match or cigarette-in seconds. He expressed concern that children and parents won't know how to differentiate between low-powered lasers and the much stronger ones which can easily cause serious damage to eyes.

Like his new laser made in China, the ones Waltmire has seen are all coming from overseas, apparently skirting U.S. regulations with no obstacles.

"It's definitely not made in the U.S. It can't be made in the U.S.," Waltmire said. "We have rules and regulations to stop that. Even if it's only for laboratory environments, you have to have certifications even to buy it. This is all sold on the Internet, made halfway around the world, and they don't care about safety. They just care about money."

Back at Hopkins, Dr. Bressler said researchers on the recent study were shocked to see the abundance of high-powered lasers available for sale on the Internet and hope to spread the word to parents.

"Education is key. Letting parents know there could be laser lights out there that your children might get a hold of [or] their friends might get a hold of that could cause damage," he said. "You may not be around, you may not have ordered, their friend may have ordered it. And so, if they're educated that you just don't want to look in the path of a laser light, this is probably the best way to avoid these injuries in the future." 

Retailers that sell the high-powered lasers maintain they label their products with multiple safety warnings, and some include safety goggles with each purchase. But many of the products purchased and reviewed by NBC5 Investigates were mislabeled with incorrect safety labeling and information.

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