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Worldwide: Laser pointers reach 2000 milliwatts (2 watts)

An online laser seller has announced a number of 2000 milliwatt (2 watt) laser pointers. This is a new high power for handheld lasers intended to be sold to consumers. And the end-user price of under USD $200 is remarkably low. Only a few years ago, a small portable 2 W laser would have cost thousands of dollars.

To give an idea of its power, here are some comparisons:
  • The U.S. limit for a laser to be sold as a pointer is 5 mW (0.005 watt). The new lasers are 400 times more powerful than a “legal” laser pointer.
  • The infamous Wicked Laser Spyder III Arctic is nominally a 1000 mW laser (1 watt). However, most Arctics actually emit around 800 mW, so if the new lasers really reach 2000 mW then they are 2.5 times as powerful as a Wicked Arctic.
  • The most dangerous laser classification, Class 4, begins at 500 mW (1/2 watt) for visible light. Class 4 lasers can cause instant eye damage, skin burns, and can be a fire hazard for certain materials. The new devices are four times the minimum for a Class 4 laser.
  • A 2000 mW laser is an eye hazard up to about 1,000 feet away from the laser.
The lasers come in three colors: green (532 nm), blue (450 nm), and violet (405 nm). In terms of visual interference with pilots and motorists, the lasers have the following effects:
  • A 2000 mW green laser is a flashblindness hazard to 5,200 feet (~1 mile), a glare/disruption hazard to 24,000 feet (4.5 miles), and a distraction hazard to 234,000 feet (44 miles).
  • A 2000 mW blue laser is a flashblindness hazard to 176 feet, a glare/disruption hazard to 816 feet, and a distraction hazard to 7,956 feet (1.5 miles). This is based on 450 nm blue light appearing 3.4% as bright to the human eye as 532 nm green light. Note that the eye hazard distance (about 1,000 feet) is longer than the flashblindness and glare hazard distances.
  • A 2000 mW violet laser is a flashblindness hazard to 47 feet, a glare/disruption hazard to 216 feet, and a distraction hazard to 2,100 feet. This is based on 405 nm violet light appearing 0.9% as bright to the human eye as 532 green nm light. Note that the eye hazard distance (about 1,000 feet) is longer than the flashblindness and glare hazard distances.

Additional background information

There are two major problems with U.S. legality of the 2000 mW lasers. One is how the manufacturer promotes the laser (e.g., as a pointer); the other is whether the laser has U.S.-required safety features.

Is this a “pointer”?

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration does not allow lasers above 5 mW to be sold for pointing/aiming or entertainment purposes. Since the manufacturer calls these “laser pointers” and states in their press release that the new lasers are for “playing” and “fun and excitement”, FDA could legally ban their importation and sale. The manufacturer could avoid this by not selling them as a “pointer” and by promoting them only as a general-purpose laser.

However, FDA may also attempt to ban handheld lasers under a recent interpretation that handhelds are “surveying, leveling and alignment” lasers. (LaserPointerSafety.com disagrees with this after analyzing the applicable sections of 21 CFR 1040.10(b)(39).) If FDA’s interpretation stands, then it would not matter how these lasers are advertised or promoted -- FDA could ban their importation and sale.

For more information, see our discussion and analysis of FDA’s authority over laser pointers and handheld lasers.

Does it meet federal safety standards?

From photos of these 2000 mW lasers, they do not appear to meet all U.S. federal safety standards for Class 4 laser devices.

For example, there is a simple push-on/push-off switch on the end. No keyswitch is present (or similar lock-out device to prevent unauthorized operation). The lasers could be banned by FDA unless and until the manufacturer complies with the safety standards, and files FDA Form 3632 to report their product’s compliance.

Can U.S. consumers obtain 2000 mW handhelds?

Even if FDA bans these laser devices, they may still get through to U.S. buyers. Internet sales to individuals are notoriously hard to police. For example, the seller may falsely claim on import forms that the device is a flashlight. Even if FDA importation form 2877 is properly filled out, Customs officials may not inspect all packages sent to the U.S. and thus may miss many shipments.

Once in the hands of a U.S. buyer, the buyer can keep the laser. There are no federal laws against owning a laser of any power. An “illegal” laser is one that is manufactured or sold in violation of FDA regulations on safety features, power, and/or record-keeping. In fact, the term “illegal” is confusing. A more accurate term is “non-compliant”, since the laser does not comply with FDA regulations.

The manufacturer may be fined, or forced to repair or recall a non-compliant laser. But as far as LaserPointerSafety.com is aware, the end user is not required to turn in any non-compliant lasers. (This is similar to how if a defective automobile is recalled, the government cannot confiscate it from the owner, even if the owner never takes it to a dealer for the recall servicing.)

From a press release and website search