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US: Sen. Schumer asks FDA to overhaul laser regulations

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called for an overhaul of “lax and outdated” federal regulations on lasers and laser pointers. In a letter to the Food and Drug Administration released on August 5 2012, Schumer said the limit on laser pointers’ power should be less than the current 5 milliwatt limit. He also asked FDA to restrict the sale of more powerful Class 3B and 4 lasers sold for “recreational” purposes. Finally, he requested that FDA require warning labels stating that aiming at aircraft is a federal offense.

From the Associated Press via the Wall Street Journal. To read the text of Schumer’s letter to the FDA, and his press release, click the Read More link below.

Schumer letter to the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, August 5 2012

Dear Commissioner Hamburg,

I write today regarding the very dangerous problem of laser pointers being targeted at airplanes and helicopters. I ask that you immediately seek to revise what appear to be fairly lax and outdated regulations governing the sale and strength of both laser pointers and lasers, broadly.

Over the last 6 years, the number of incidents of lasers being shined into a cockpit of an aircraft has gone from nearly 300 in 2005 to over 3500 in 2011, according to FAA incident statistics. Just this past month, a JetBlue pilot landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport was forced to seek medical attention following one such incident, while traveling over Islip, NY and a Suffolk County Police Helicopter was also targeted by a laser pointer from the ground. Each of these incidents could have easily lead to a very dangerous and possibly deadly situation. Lasers can cause temporary blindness and disorientation in pilots, and could be catastrophic at critical moments in flight, such as takeoffs and landings.

Luckily many of these incidents have yet to cause any severe damage, but I believe action must be taken immediately to prevent mischievous teenagers or those wishing to cause real harm from taking down an airplane or helicopter. We cannot wait until someone is tragically distracted at the helm of an airplane.

Congress has acted to increase penalties on those who shine a laser pointer at an airplane, and the FDA should follow its lead on taking this issue seriously. According to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), Chapter V, Subchapter C, (21 U.S.C.A. § 360kk) the FDA has the authority to control radiation-emitting electronics, which includes lasers and laser pointers for safety reasons. I respectfully request that you consider new regulations to regulate potentially dangerous laser pointers.

It is my understanding that there are little-to-no restrictions on who can purchase lasers. Currently, lasers with a strength of 5mW are permitted to be sold as recreational laser pointers and can be found at various retailers. Because of the apparent misuse of these laser pointers, which were originally intended as devices for presentations, I ask you to consider lowering the allowable strength of lasers sold as laser pointers for recreational use.

It is also my understanding that more powerful lasers, such as Class IIIb and Class IV lasers, have no purchase restrictions, other than a rule prohibiting them from being able to be sold as “pointers.” It’s my strong belief that the FDA should implement some purchasing restrictions on Class IIIb and Class IV lasers, as they are currently easily available for purchase.

As you know, the Congress recently passed legislation making it a federal crime to shine a laser pointer at an aircraft. In addition to exploring a regulatory overhaul of the strength and sale of lasers and laser pointers, I would urge the FDA to consider requiring labels on laser pointing devices making it clear that it is a federal crime to shine them at aircraft.

While thus far we have been fortunate in avoiding a catastrophe stemming from a laser being pointed into a cockpit, the longer we fail to address this problem, the greater the likelihood of one happening. I urge the FDA to move quickly in its examination of the regime. As always, feel free to reach out to my office with any questions.

[end Schumer letter to FDA]

Schumer Press Release, August 5 2012


Just This Past Month, a Jet Blue Pilot Landing at JFK Was Forced to Seek Medical Treatment After a Laser Was Shined Into Cockpit; A Laser Was Also Pointed at a Police Helicopter on Long Island

Schumer Asks FDA to Overhaul Regulations Governing the Power and Sale of Lasers Sold Online and At Retailers; Calls for Developing Regulations that Limit Power Levels for Popular Laser Pointers and Restrict Recreational Access to More Powerful Devices

Schumer: Pointing Lasers at Aircraft Can be Dangerous and Deadly

United States Senator Charles E. Schumer called on the Food and Drug Administration today to overhaul the regulations governing the sale and strength of lasers and laser pointers after multiple incidents in the last month where lasers were pointed at aircrafts, disrupting pilots. Currently, in the United States anyone can buy a laser or laser pointer with little to no restriction. Schumer called for an overhaul in the regulations that controls the strength and sale of laser devices to both decrease the strength of laser pointers and restrict the recreational sale of more powerful lasers. Lasers in United States fall into several categories of strength, but even more powerful lasers are easily purchased online and at retailers. As recent incidents have shown, lasers have the potential to seriously interfere with the operation of an aircraft and actually damage pilots’ eyesight. Yet despite the ability of lasers to present significant safety hazards to aircraft, existing regulations allow for easy access and purchase at both retailers and online for lasers powerful enough to interfere with the safe operation of an aircraft. After two recent incidents involving lasers being pointed at aircraft on Long Island, Schumer is asking the FDA to establish greater controls over the sale of lasers that are powerful enough to reach aircraft cockpits.

“Shining a laser at an aircraft is dangerous and could lead to a horrible tragedy,” said Schumer. “While these incidents seem to be rising, regulations dealing with the power and sale of these products have not kept up. The FDA needs to revamp its regulations to ensure there are greater controls over devices that could inhibit pilots enough to bring down a plane or a helicopter.”

Two weeks ago, a laser was pointed into the cockpit of a JetBlue flight traveling from Syracuse to Kennedy Airport over Islip, causing minor eye damage to the pilot operating the passenger jet. A week and a half ago, in a separate incident, a laser was pointed at a Suffolk County Police helicopter, flying neat Brentwood. According to Federal Aviation Administration statistics, 1,749 laser incidents have been reported this year. Over the last 6 years, the number of incidents of lasers being shined into a cockpit of an aircraft has gone from 283 in 2005 to 3,591 in 2011. A Senate bill was passed into law earlier this year, making pointing a laser at an aircraft a federal crime, but current regulations allow for anyone to buy even some of the most powerful lasers.

Class IIIa lasers, widely known as laser pointers, have output strength of up to 5mW. While laser pointers at one time were primarily used for presentation purposes in boardrooms and classrooms, they are now wildly available at trinket shops, flea markets, and retailers. A 5mW laser, during a perfect night, can be seen up to 2.2 miles and can be a serious distraction at a distance of a quarter mile, roughly 1,300 feet. Class IIIb lasers, which have output strength between 5mW and 500mW are prohibited from being marketed as “laser pointers” and have no purchase restrictions on them, either, despite being primarily designed for use in research for spectrometry or for use in commercial light shows. They can easily be purchased online. The strongest battery operated lasers can reach strengths of 2W. Currently, Australia has a power limit of 1mW for laser pointers.

Because of the misuse of lasers and the lack of regulations over their strength and sale, Schumer is specifically asking for the FDA to put in place rules that would further limit the power of laser pointers allowed to be sold for recreational purposes and restrict the ability to purchase lasers with greater levels of strength, like Class IIIb lasers, for recreational purposes. By overhauling allowable strength limits for laser pointers, Schumer argued that the FDA can help reduce the incidents of lasers being pointed at aircraft cockpits, by making it more difficult for the laser to reach aircraft.

Schumer noted that regulations controlling the power and sale of laser have not kept pace with their increasing sale and use and urged the FDA to begin a regulatory review. He pointed to the recent JetBlue incident involving a plane that was flying at an altitude of 5,000 feet. Schumer is urging the FDA to establish greater controls over lasers with power capable of reaching an aircraft and is urging the FDA to also require warning labels on any lasers sold in the United States making it clear that directing it at an aircraft is a federal offense.

[end Schumer press release]