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US: UPDATED: Laser said to cause serious eye injury at Burning Man 2014

A woman was blinded by a laser at the Burning Man art and technology festival, according to a September 5 2014 post by Richard W. DeVaul, head of Google’s Rapid Evaluation Team.

DeVaul’s colleague was working as a volunteer when she was struck in the left eye by a “high-power, hand-held green laser, most likely a 1W 532 nm toy from China”.

Burning Man took place August 25 through September 1, 2014, at Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada. As of the September 5 post, DeVaul said the woman “still has not regained vision in her left eye and it is possible that she never will.”
He noted that “Lasers like this are weapons. it only takes a momentary, glancing interaction between a beam and an eye to cause permanent blindness. They have no place at an event like Burning Man and I will do everything I can to get these devices banned. Not that it will help the Ranger [volunteer] who is facing the potential of a lifetime of disability.”

Reddit discussion

The injury was discussed on a Reddit thread. PavementBlues wrote that “People, both in the crowd and from art cars, were shining lasers directly into our faces for much of the Man Burn. As upsetting as it was to learn that one of my fellow Sandmen [burn prevention volunteer] had been blinded by the people that she was volunteering her time to help, I was frankly surprised that there was only one injury.”

Tykeryerson wrote “There was a dude waving around a SUPER powerful green laser at the burn... waaaay brighter than all the other peon lasers aimed at the man. Rangers repeatedly tried to get him to stop, and he kept ducking away, and taunting them even.” According to Drygrain, “she came by... a few times on Sunday and Monday [presumably August 31 and September 1 2014] with a bandage over her eye. Awesome person.”

Ate21 wrote: “That Sandman [the injured woman] was my partner and both of us were getting hit by lasers from hand helds as well as art cars. A Ranger on the other side of that Sandman reported getting hit as well multiple times. At one point it felt like I was pinned from two directions from different cars and I had to try to hold my hands up to shield my eyes (which blocked my view of the crowd inhibiting my effectiveness to watch for runners). No matter where I moved I was still being hit and I'm assuming the few direct hits I got were from lower powered lasers since I can still see though I know not if any weirdness I'm experiencing is actual or placebo. I will soon be going in for an eye exam to make sure though. I honestly can't tell you if they were set on random patterns, being controlled, or both because there were times they just glanced across me and other times where they were fixed on me for up to 5 seconds or more at a time.

From a Facebook post by Richard W. DeVaul, dated September 5 2014 at 9:18 pm. The Reddit thread about the injury is here. Thanks to Francesco van Loon for bringing this to our attention.

UPDATED April 17 2015: A March 24 2015 “Voices of Burning Man” blog post described the injuries to Kelli Halston Hoversten in more detail. Both eyes were injured: “…somebody in the crowd pointed a handheld laser at her face, permanently blinding her left eye. And then one mounted on a Mutant Vehicle partially blinded her right eye.” She suffered significant consequences, losing her job as an arborist because she cannot get insurance [likely due to a lack of depth perception, which also caused her to stop recreational rock climbing and ice climbing]. In her remaining (right) eye, central vision is blocked by a black dot. She still can drive but “just barely, and she’s rightfully worried about losing that privilege.”
Due to the cost of lost wages and doctor bills, estimated at $20,000, Hoversten set up a GoFundMe page to help with the expenses and to help educate people about laser hazards. In a little over a month, the amount pledged reached over $32,000 from 686 people (an average of about $46 per person donating).
On April 15 2015, the organizers of Burning Man announced a new policy banning all handheld lasers (including low-powered pointers). In addition, lasers used in art installations, on vehicles, or in theme camps would be asked to follow general safety practices; usage would be reviewed and approved in advance of the event.

UPDATED September 1 2015: In an update on her GoFundMe page made in late July 2015, Hoversten wrote “In 36 days it will be 1 year since I was injured. My left eye is completely blind and my right eye has gotten worse. I am still having migraine headaches 3 or 4 days a week and I am now on the third combination of medication and it is not working either. Botox is the next logical step but it is expensive and so far workers comp has denied anything but the cheapest medications and many of the tests that the doctors have wanted to run.”
“I have still not been reimbursed by Burning mans workers comp insurance for any expenses. I still can't get anyone to tell me when a decision will be made to determine what the outcome will be about a settlement.”
“I am now going to have to hire a workers comp lawyer to get the answers I need. And to get the medical treatment that I deserve.”
“I want to thank everyone who has been so supportive of me during this last year.” [Thanks to Dan Hewett for bringing this latest update to our attention.]