“Laser beam incident forces pilot to return to Heathrow”, 15 February 2016

You may have read the alarming story about a New York-bound flight which had to return to London after the pilot was reportedly dazzled by a laser outside of London. The College’s Daniel Hardiman-McCartney explains more about the impact of a laser on the eye, and what you should do if you think you have looked into a laser, as he explained to The Guardian newspaper.

Lasers used to be confined to the movies. Following Star Wars no space movie would be complete without a laser and then, in the 80s, came laser pens. Handheld pointers gave lecturers the magical power to point across a room, illuminating even the dullest of subjects. Over the last ten years, lasers have become both cheaper and much more powerful – from popping balloons to lighting matches, you may be forgiven for thinking they are nothing more than a cheap harmless novelty.

Recently the British journal of Ophthalmology estimated that around 150 children had suffered injuries to the back of their eyes. With over half a million low cost laser pointers now in circulation in a variety of powers, parents should be aware of the harm that may result to both their children and to others. Originally, the classroom lasers had a power of 1mW; now, due to advances in manufacturing and mislabelling, lasers are typically up to 300mW strong, with low cost laser pointers available up to 1000mW, and those marketed for pointing at stars up to 6000mW.

All these higher-powered lasers are capable of producing heat that can burn and cause serious damage to the back of your eye in seconds. Curious young children have been reported to have accidentally pointed lasers at their friends or stare into the beam, resulting in eye damage. Older children and teenagers have pointed the lasers at cars, trains, planes and helicopters in order to dazzle drivers and pilots for fun, and it is only a matter of time before a serious accident or catastrophe occurs.  Parents should be aware the police have a power to class laser pointers as offensive weapons when used in this way. A number of prison sentences have been issued over the last year as a result of lasers being directed into the cockpits of aircraft with the intention of dazzling pilots.

Worryingly for parents, many lasers labelled as being at a low power of 1mW, have been measured and shown to exceed this limit and in fact be a much stronger; this is probably so manufacturers and importers can circumvent the current safety standards. So what can parents do to ensure their children do not harm their eyes? Follow these top for tips:

Never give laser pointers to children

Children may think lasers are fun, but do not understand the dangers to themselves or others. Older children’s and teenagers’ misuse of laser pointers could result in committing a criminal offence.

Never point a laser beam at your eyes, face or skin

Lasers can result in permanent damage to the retina and burns the skin.

Never point a laser beam at an aircraft, boat or vehicle

Lasers can cause temporary blindness, severe glare and disorientation that could result in a pilot or driver losing control and a catastrophe could result.

Never use any laser pointer without a label

If you do need to use a laser, ensure you buy it from a reputable retailer and that it has a safety label. Without a safety label it is possible to be of a much higher power and may not be safe for the use you intend.