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June 2010 alert: Dangerous Class 4 lasers now being sold


On June 9, 2010, the laser safety game changed: consumers can now buy an ultra-high powered laser pointer. Major Internet laser seller Wicked Lasers introduced the Spyder III Pro Arctic, with a nominal 1 watt beam at a price of only USD $200 (later increased to $299). This laser is much more powerful, at a much lower cost, than was ever before available.

Wicked Lasers Spyder III Pro Arctic
Click for a review of the safety features
of the Wicked Lasers Spyder III Pro Arctic series laser.

The diodes were reportedly harvested from Casio “Green Slim” video projectors, which are widely available online and and office supply stores. This line of projectors uses up to 24 laser diodes, each of which can output in the 500 mW - 1 W region. In early 2010, hobbyists discovered that by disassembling and “harvesting” the projectors, they could create up to 24 handheld lasers, each with up to 1 watt of output power. Previously such diodes cost around $2400 each; however an $840 projector could yield 24 diodes making the cost just $35 each. (A photo of the Casio with all 24 diodes emitting a giant beam is on this page; scroll down to find the picture.) This is how Wicked Lasers was able to introduce a nominal 1 watt laser at such a low price.

Why Class 4 lasers are so dangerous


Any visible-beam laser over 1/2 watt is in the most hazardous laser safety classification, Class 4, due to the following:
  • Direct and reflected eye hazard. At close range, the direct beam can “pop” an eye. Even a reflection off a shiny surface or off a window is enough to cause eye damage.
  • Skin burn hazard. The beam causes a painful burn that leaves a scar.
  • Materials burn hazard. Common materials can char, burn, or burst into flame.
In addition, the Spyder III Pro Arctic has a 445nm blue beam which is at the peak of the Blue Light Hazard region. The eye cannot handle excessive blue light and it chemically changes, which can lead to early macular degeneration and other conditions.

Finally, the beam is a more worrisome visual hazard to aircraft due to its higher power. Already, there is an epidemic of pilots being hit by laser light during landing or takeoff. People have been jailed for aiming a 3 milliwatt (3/1000 watt) laser at aircraft. The Spyder III Pro Arctic is 33,000% more powerful.

Clearly, the Spyder III Pro Arctic is significantly more dangerous than any laser previously affordable by the general public. A hazard analysis shows that its Nominal Ocular Hazard Distance is 734 feet (223 meters) and can block a pilot’s vision up to 2900 feet away (880 meters). In an accidental exposure, a Class 4 laser’s beam could be hazardous to untrained users and those nearby. A Class 4 laser is especially dangerous in the hands of people with deliberate intent to annoy, harass, or hurt others.

Class 4 handheld lasers should be restricted


In the view of LaserPointerSafety.com, lasers like this are unsafe for sale to consumers. They should be banned or regulated more stringently for the general public. While we love lasers, there is no justifiable consumer use for handheld Class 4 lasers. Occupations, applications, hobbyists and experimenters with legitimate need for a handheld Class 4 laser should be licensed, varianced or otherwise regulated. Alternatively, Class 4 handheld lasers could be taxed at a rate that discourages casual purchases by the general public; those who really want them could still obtain them but at a higher price.

(The above is not intended to affect laser modules which are parts and not finished products, as long as there is no intent to circumvent the law by making easy-to-assemble kits or selling these in high volumes to the general public.)

Some might blame Wicked Lasers. However, what they are doing is not illegal under U.S. law. They are responding to perceived competitive pressure to be “the first with the most”. If they did not do this, some other company would. And Wicked Lasers should be given credit for making it clear to purchasers about the extreme hazards of the Spyder III Pro Arctic:

“Extremely dangerous is an understatement to the power of 1W of laser power. It will blind permanently and instantly and set fire quickly to skin and other body parts, use with extreme caution and only when using the included eye protection. Customers will be required to completely read and agree to our Class IV Laser Hazard Acknowledgement Form”


The ideal situation would be a ban, effectively enforced, on the manufacture, importation, and sale of handheld Class 4 lasers to consumers. (There should be exceptions for occupations and applications needing a handheld Class 4 laser.) If ALL manufacturers are equally subject to effective restrictions, then there will not be a “wattage war”. Laser pointer manufacturers can still compete on factors other than power.

This is similar to how other potentially hazardous materials and devices are regulated. Chemicals, fertilizers, cold medicines, martial arts weapons, automatic weapons -- for all of these there are restrictions on amounts or on possession. The U.S. has restrictions on firearm purchases; this includes a record of the purchaser and transaction. Restrictions on handheld Class 4 lasers should be similar to these limits.

Why U.S. laws are ineffective


Under current U.S. federal regulations, handheld Class 4 lasers are not illegal, as long as they have certain safety features such as a keyswitch. To sell these lasers, a manufacturer must file a Laser Product Report with the FDA CDRH describing the device and that it has all required safety features. Upon filing, they receive an Accession Number and can begin importing and/or selling the laser -- even before the report is reviewed.

If the laser is sold for surveying, leveling, alignment, pointing, or demonstrations, the FDA CDRH restricts the power to under 5 milliwatts (5/1000 of a watt). But if the laser is sold for general purposes such as burning and cutting, there are no power restrictions.

This explains why many Internet sites selling to U.S. consumers emphasize burning and cutting beams, but do not say anything about pointing out objects. For example, the following statement is prominently displayed at Wicked’s website (as of Dec. 2010):

wicked-warning-statement

FDA CDRH personnel recognize that they are limited by existing U.S. law (21 CFR 1040.10 and 1040.11). While it may be possible to reinterpret law and thus tighten regulations, they also are under legal and budgetary constraints. Due to their constraints, CDRH may be limited in what they can do.

(Update: In November 2010, FDA CDRH sent an official Warning Letter to Wicked Lasers. Details are in the News section of this website. Note that FDA did not take action based on the inherent hazard of Class 4 lasers. Their objections were instead based on procedural and paperwork issues dating back to 2006 and 2008. This is a creative use of FDA’s powers, which does temporarily block importation and certification of Wicked’s products. However, if Wicked overcomes these procedural objections, then they can resume legal sales of Class 4 lasers to the general public.)

A dangerous stalemate


Right now there is an odd and dangerous stalemate. It would be fine with at least one laser pointer manufacturer if Class 4 consumer lasers were banned or restricted. Any ban should come from the national government so it affects all manufacturers equally. Yet in the U.S., the FDA CDRH has limited authority and limited resources to do this effectively. While new laser laws could solve this, Congressional action is slow and usually comes only after a crisis or disaster (banking, oil spills, etc.).

In the meantime, laser powers will continue to increase and costs will continue to decrease. On June 9, 2010, a significant barrier was breached. It is time for industry and government to develop workable solutions to prevent inevitable incidents, accidents and tragedies.

_______

Updates


June 25 2010: Casio released a statement warning against the misuse of laser diodes in its XJ-A series of projectors. (Wicked Lasers “harvested” these Casio diodes to create the Spyder III Pro Arctic.)

June 25 2010: Lucasfilm issued a press release demanding that Wicked Lasers stop their “infringing activities” since the Spyder III Pro Arctic’s handle is designed to resemble a lightsaber. The release also noted “...this product can cause serious injury to the user and other people. We strongly discourage consumers from purchasing it.”

August 4 2010: Lucasfilm dropped its cease-and-desist order against Wicked Lasers, in part because Wicked had never called its laser a “lightsaber” or associated it with Star Wars. Wicked’s CEO noted that publicity from Lucasfilm’s demand helped triple sales.

August 30 2010: The Laser Institute of America issued a press release warning the public about the hazards of Class 4 lasers

September 15 2010:
This website published a review of the safety features of the Wicked Lasers Spyder III Pro Arctic.

October 2010: Casio sent a cease and desist letter to a hobbyist selling harvested diodes on the Internet.

November 30 2010: A laser hobbyist reported being injured by a brief exposure from a homemade Casio-diode-based laser. (He said his vision later returned to normal, with no noticeable effect.) This is the first reported accidental injury from a Casio-sourced laser.

December 8 2010: Tech website Gizmodo reports on a Nov. 3 letter from FDA CDRH, “disapproving” of Wicked Lasers’ quality control and banning imports and sales of its lasers, including the Spyder III Arctic, until Wicked satisfactorily responds. The story is here in our general news section.

December 16, 2010: FDA issues a safety notification to alert consumers “about the risk of eye and skin injuries from high-powered laser pointers.” A summary and complete text is here in our general news section.

September 6, 2011: Wicked Lasers introduces a nominal 1 watt 532 nm (green) handheld laser called the “Krypton”. Because the eye is about 30 times more sensitive to green light than to blue, this laser has visual interference hazard distances which are 5.3 times longer than the 445 nm (blue) Arctic version, as this chart shows:

Pic 2011-12 comparing Wicked green and blue_750w
Note: The hazard analysis referred to earlier in this page uses a tighter 1.0 mrad beam, giving longer hazard distances. The chart above uses a wider 1.5 mrad beam which is comparable to the real-world beams from these lasers. In other words, the hazard distances in the chart above are more accurate for the Wicked Krypton and Arctic lasers.

December 19, 2011: A second report of a laser hobbyist being injured by a brief exposure to a 1 watt, 445 nm (blue) laser.


NOTES AND DETAILS

1) We are using the term “laser pointer” in the general sense of a handheld, portable laser. Although the U.S. FDA CDRH defines them on the basis of how they are advertised or promoted. most people (like us) look at the form factor and not the advertising.

2) We debated whether to name the brand of laser. We decided to include Wicked Laser’s name on this page only to help search engines. This entire page is about the Wicked Lasers Spyder III Pro Arctic as the first in an inevitable series of really dangerous lasers. By using the name, anyone searching for information on the safety implications of the Spyder III Pro Arctic will hopefully get this page as one of the results.

3) The Nominal Ocular Hazard Distance (NOHD) of the Spyder III Pro Arctic is 692 feet (211 meters) according to Wicked Lasers and is 734 feet (223 meters) according to our own
hazard analysis assuming a tight 1 mrad beam.

4) The Federal Aviation Administration considers that a typical spotter without binoculars can detect aircraft at night out to a distance of about 3 miles (15840ft/4828m). The Spyder III Pro Arctic’s glare hazard distance is 2891 feet (881m) so that a careful user could spot and avoid hitting an aircraft with vision-blocking glare. However, the laser’s light is a distraction, defined as being brighter than city and runway lights, to a distance of 5.5 miles (28914ft/8813m). This means that even a careful user could hit a pilot with distracting light and not even know that there was an aircraft at the end of the beam.

5) For any country or jurisdiction banning “handheld lasers” or “laser pointers”, the definition needs to be carefully stated. This is discussed at length on the
“If you are writing a laser law” page. Also, it must be very difficult or impossible to remove the components inside; this prevents “harvesting” or otherwise making a shorter, more portable laser.