A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use
U.S. regulatory agencies
FDA Center for Devices and Radiological Health
The Center for Devices and Radiological Health is part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Under U.S. law (21 CFR 1040.10 and 1040.11), FDA/CDRH regulates laser equipment plus three uses: medical, surveying/alignment, and “demonstration”. The latter includes any use where seeing the laser “dot” or beam is the primary use. Demonstration lasers include classroom use, laser pointers, and laser light shows. Since demonstration lasers are usually exclusively visible lasers, the discussion below about laser powers and safety requirements assumes that the demonstration laser emits only visible light.
Demonstration lasers below 5 mW (including laser pointers)
Demonstration lasers have a maximum power below 5 mW. This is why laser pointers cannot be 5 mW or more. However, notice a large loophole: if a laser is not sold for pointing purposes -- if it is not a “demonstration” laser -- then it can be above 5 mW. That is why battery-powered handheld lasers are often advertised on the Internet for the purpose of burning materials, popping balloons, or other general-purpose use. Since this is not “laser pointing” it is legal, even though you or I might call a battery-powered handheld laser a “pointer”.
In June 2009, FDA/CDRH released a webpage and a downloadable PDF brochure, on the topic of laser pointer hazards.
Demonstration lasers above 5 mW (laser shows and displays)
Demonstration laser users, such as laser light show producers, can use powers above 5 mW if special permission is given. This “variance” allows a user to vary from the 5 mW requirement. In return, FDA/CDRH mandates additional safety measures, such as having an operator at all times, and keeping the beam 3 meters vertically and 2.5 meters laterally from any audience member.
A variance is required for any laser show “introduced into commerce”, which basically means any show done in public, outside of one’s home. The variance form is available from FDA/CDRH. The variance must be approved before the show can be performed.
New 2010 policy for surveying, leveling and alignment (SLA) lasers
In mid-2010, consumer-affordable handheld Class 4 lasers were introduced into commerce. FDA/CDRH wanted a way to restrict these. They therefore developed a new interpretation of “surveying, leveling and alignment” (SLA) lasers. This is one of the three uses that FDA/CDRH can regulate (along with medical and “demonstration”).
As explained by an FAA representative in an August 2010 presentation, under the new interpretation, SLA lasers “tend to be” portable in terms of size and power source, they are generally handheld, they emit a beam into open space, and they utilize the laser’s straight line for surveying, leveling and alignment. A person would need a variance to use a Class 3B or Class 4 SLA laser.
As of Feb. 2011, there does not appear to be any published information about the SLA policy. It has been reviewed by FDA’s Office of Chief Counsel, and apparently does not require Federal Register public comment. For these reasons, the exact policy and its implications are unknown. For example, it is not clear if the intent is to restrict handheld portable laser devices (by redefining them as being for SLA purposes), or to restrict persons from buying or using such devices without a variance, or both. It is also not clear how or whether this policy has been used in any actions against laser manufacturers or users.
October 2016 proposal to ban non-red laser pointers
Much of the above information could change if an October 25 proposal by FDA is eventually enacted. FDA wants to designate all laser pointers that are not red as “defective.” This designation would prohibit U.S. sales of green, blue and other non-red pointers and would make it easier for FDA to control and seize imports of such lasers.
In addition, the agency proposed a new definition of “laser pointer.” For a detailed description of the proposal, and FDA’s rationale behind this move, see our October 26 2016 news story.
For more information, see the “Perspective and opinions” page discussing FDA authority over laser pointers and handheld lasers.
Federal Aviation Administration
The Federal Aviation Administration does not have any jurisdiction over laser users. This means FAA cannot directly regulate laser use in airspace. The most they can do is ask laser users to notify them of their outdoor operations via FAA Advisory Circular 70-1. Many professional users such as NASA, observatories, universities, etc. will not allow their employees to use lasers outdoors unless FAA has reviewed the operation and has responded with a “letter of non-objection.”
The Food and Drug Administration does give FAA indirect control over three laser uses: 1) demonstrations including light shows, 2) medical, and 3) surveying, leveling or alignment.
Details of the FAA’s involvement with outdoor laser regulation are on the Rules for U.S. outdoor users page.
Other U.S. laser regulators
In addition to FDA/CDRH, the other federal agency with direct laser authority is U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulates occupational exposure to lasers, but not non-workplace safety hazards.
Some states and localities have laws regulating laser equipment or use. In addition, these laws may be of interest for those with high-powered lasers:
- Texas and Illinois require registration of Class 3B and Class 4 lasers (those above 500 mW).
- New York State has requirements for “low-intensity” and “high-intensity” lasers; it is unclear whether laser pointers under 5 mW are included or are enforced under this rule (“Industrial Code Rule 50”). Operators of mobile lasers (e.g., not fixed as in a factory) require an operator’s license from the state’s Department of Labor. Again, it does not seem that users of pointers under 5 mW are required to have an operator’s license.
- Other states with registration requirements for certain lasers or uses include Georgia and Arizona.
If you have any questions, check with FDA/CDRH for a list of state and local agencies. Also, do an Internet search for your state’s name, plus terms such as “laser registration.”