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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.

UK: Seizure of 7,000+ laser pointers illustrates control problems

In 2011, the U.K. Health Protection Agency analyzed samples of laser pointers seized from one company suspected of import violations. HPA found that 96% of the working pointers were above the U.K.’s legal power limit of 1 milliwatt.

7,378 lasers were seized, along with 8,780 parts from which lasers could be assembled. It was estimated that the company sold over 35,000 laser pointers from 2009-2011, generating income of over £1,000,000 (USD $1,600,000).

Techyun Hii, 33, pleaded guilty to four charges of laser pointer violations and a fifth charge of unsafe power chargers. He was sentenced to a 180 day jail term suspended for 18 months, and to 300 hours of community service. The lasers were later incinerated in a hospital’s furnace.

Lead author John O’Hagan detailed the HPA’s findings in a paper presented at the March 2013 International Laser Safety Conference in Orlando. The case had previously been reported by LaserPointerSafety.com.
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US: Government agency finds most laser pointers they purchased are overpowered

Researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology conducted precision tests on 122 laser pointers, most purchased online. Ninety percent of the green lasers, and 44 percent of red lasers did not comply with U.S. safety regulations. Green pointers often emitted dangerous invisible infrared radiation, in addition to the visible green light.

The findings were made public at a March 20 2013 meeting of the International Laser Safety Conference.

Researcher Joshua Hadler designed the measurement device to be accurate, inexpensive and easy-to-use. It would cost roughly $2000 in equipment costs to make a copy of the NIST device; plans are available from NIST for interested parties.

From a NIST press release, March 20 2013.
Click here for the full press release:
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Australia: Ban on laser pointers has been a "detriment" to safety

A scientific paper published in March 2013, which analyzed laser pointers purchased in Australia, has concluded that the country's stringent laws against lasers may have backfired: "...the prohibition laws may have detrimentally affected laser pointer safety within Australia without overtly impacting availability....the one thing more hazardous than a correctly labelled high power laser pointer is a high power laser pointer labelled as safe."

The author, Trevor Wheatley, is chair of the Standards Australia SF-019 Committee on laser safety. He studied 41 lasers purchased online in 2012 that were claimed by the sellers to be legal -- lower than the Australian import limit of 1 milliwatt. Most cost less than AUS $20.

Wheatley found that 95% of these pointers were illegal under Australian law, with outputs above 1 mW. Of the 41, 78% were between 5 mW and 100 mW. (5 mW is generally taken to be the highest safe power for a general purpose laser pointer.)

Based on Wheatley's research, "...there would appear to be a greater than 50% chance that someone attempting to buy a 'safe' laser pointer would inadvertently get a hazardous laser." Further, 100% of the tested laser pointers below $20 "would represent prohibited weapons in most Australian states."

From other statistics, the paper states that "availability has not been significantly impacted." In 2007/2008 there were 648 incidents involving lasers pointed at aircraft. In 2010/2011, well after the import and possession restrictions, the number of incidents had increased to 828.
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Switzerland: Laser pointer labels can understate their power

A study by the Swiss Federal Office of Metrology shows that 95% of laser pointers tested had output powers greater than what was indicated on the label. No additional details on the study’s findings were immediately available.

The Swiss government banned the sale of “powerful laser pointers” in May 2011. According to World Radio Switzerland, the country is considering a ban on owning such pointers.

From World Radio Switzerland