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Australia: Study shows inexpensive green laser pointers are mislabled and significantly over-powered

A study done by researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Victoria, found that inexpensive green laser pointers had output power up to 127 times the Australian legal limit of 1 milliwatt. Results of the study were presented by Dr. Kate Fox at the IEEE Engineers in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) scientific conference, on August 19 2016 in Orlando, Florida.

The researchers purchased eight laser pointers from sources including electronics stores and online stores. They bought four lasers with green beams and four with red beams. The cost of each laser was less than AUD $30 (USD $23).

All of the lasers were advertised to have a maximum output power of either less than 1 mW or less than 5 mW. The green laser pointers’ actual output power measured from 51 to 127 milliwatts. Dr. Fox said “At that upper level, the beam would cause catastrophic retinal damage.”

Apparently much of the green lasers’ power was in the infrared. These types of lasers work by generating non-visible infrared light which is then converted by a crystal into visible green light. A filter is normally used to block the infrared light, and only let the green light through. However, “[t]he research team found that imported laser pointers were poorly made, with manufacturers tempted to skip installing infrared-blocking filters to hold down costs.” The researchers did not measure how much of each lasers’ output was in the visible, and how much was in the infrared.

The 127 milliwatt green laser was labeled as a Class 2 device, with maximum output power of 1 mW. In a previous study from the U.S. NIST, the highest power output they measured was 66.5 mW from a green laser labeled as having a maximum output power of 5 mW.

Three of the four red laser pointers were found to be within the legal limit of 1 milliwatt. The fourth red pointer was about 8.5 milliwatts. The researchers felt that the red lasers’ spots were less focused than green lasers, meaning there was less risk of retinal damage. Also, red lasers use diodes. The maximum power output of these diodes is limited; excessive current will destroy the diode’s lasing capacity instead of providing a more powerful beam.

The researchers noted that “Our experiment raised two very pertinent concerns – first, why were class 3B lasers so easily purchased via the internet without licensing? This suggests that there are many loopholes in the importation of these products and more stringent processes need to be reinforced. Secondly, why did green lasers labeled as Class 2 reach up to a power output of 127mW, effectively attaining a class 3B classification? It is very likely that there is a significant infrared component. This drastic degree of non-compliance suggests that there needs to be more rigorous testing and quality control of these commercially available lasers – merely imposing a power limit of less than 1mW is insufficient.”

The researchers concluded by stating that “Authorities such as the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) and medical authorities such as the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) ought to advocate more strongly for stringent testing, quality control and licensing of green DPSS lasers.”

From an
RMIT press release, “Over-the-counter laser pointers a threat to eyesight” and an advance copy of a paper, “Green lasers are beyond power limits mandated by safety standards,” which will be published in the Proceedings of the 2016 IEEE Engineers in Medicine and Biology Conference, online at the IEEE Xplore website. Thanks to Dr. Kate Fox for the paper.