Friday, March 11, 2011

Retinal Injuries from a Handheld Laser Pointer

Are laser pointers safe? Apparently, it depends on the laser pointer. A recent article by Christine Negroni in the New York Times (Feb. 28, 2011) states that
Eye doctors around the world are warning that recent cases of teenagers who suffered eye damage while playing with high-power green laser pointers are likely to be just the first of many.
Negroni cites a letter that appeared last September in the New England Journal of Medicine (Wyrsch, Baenninger, and Schmid, “Retinal Injuries from a Handheld Laser Pointer,” N. Engl. J. Med., Volume 363, Pages 1089–1091, 2010), which says
In the past, laser pointers sold to the public had a maximal output of 5 mW, which is regarded as harmless because the human eye protects itself with blink reflexes. The measured output of the laser in [the case of a person who was injured] was 150 mW. The use of lasers that are threatening to the eye is normally restricted to occupational and military environments; laser accidents outside these fields are very rare. However, powerful laser devices, with a power of up to 700 mW, are now easily obtainable through the Internet, despite government restrictions. These high-power lasers are advertised as “laser pointers” and look identical to low-power pointers. The much higher power of such devices may produce immediate, severe retinal injury. Despite their potential to cause blinding, such lasers are advertised as fun toys and seem to be popular with teenagers. In addition, Web sites now offer laser swords and other gadgets that use high-power lasers.
I attended a talk just last week where the speaker waved his green laser pointer around like a light saber. I don’t know the power of his pointer, but I wonder if I was in danger.

One concern arises from the bozos who point lasers at airplanes. The U.S. Congress plans to toughen the laws on this sort of horseplay, making shining a laser at a plane a federal crime with up to five years imprisonment. I’m all for high school students learning science by hands-on activities, but do it right. Buy a 5 mW red helium-neon laser pointer and use it safely to do some optics experiments (I suggest observing Young’s double slit interference pattern). Don’t buy a 700 mW green laser pointer and start shining it up into the sky! Do you think I’m being a schoolmarm out to ruin your fun? Consider this: the website reports that
A $5000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of the person(s) who aimed a laser into the cockpit of a Southwest Airlines flight approaching Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The flight, which originated in Milwaukee, was 2000 feet over the town of Millersville, near Old Mill Road and Kenora Drive, when it was illuminated around 6:45 pm on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011. Millersville is about 8 miles from BWI Airport.
You better be careful; someone may be watching.

How do you tell the difference between a safe, educational experience and a potentially disastrous prank? You begin by learning about light and its biological impact. Russ Hobbie and I discuss light in Chapter 14 of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. We address topics related to light and safety, although we don’t analyze the particular concern of laser damage to the eye. For instance, we discuss how ultraviolet light damages the eye (Section 14.9.6) and how light can be used to heat tissue (Section 14.10), as well as a detailed discussion of radiometry (the measurement of radiant energy, Section 14.11) and the anatomy and optics of the eye (Section 14.12).

In another New York Times article, Negroni relates how high powered laser pointers can pose a risk to pilots. And on her blog, she explains why helicopters may be at a greater risk than airplanes.
A helicopter cockpit has glass extending below the level of the pilots' eyes toward the ground exactly where the lasers are. Rotor craft fly at low altitudes over residential areas and busy highways. They are not flying autopilot and they may be piloted by a single person. They hover and may make inviting targets. That was the case on Tuesday when a Los Angeles television station sent its chopper to follow and report on the police activity and it was hit by a laser.
The interaction of laser light and vision is one more example of why a firm understanding of physics applied to medicine and biology is so important.

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