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2001 FAA laser pointer study

An April 2001 U.S. Federal Aviation Administration study looked at “Laser Pointers: Their Potential Affects on Vision and Aviation Safety.” The study was conducted by Van B. Nakagawara and Ronald W. Montgomery of FAA’s Civil Aeromedical Institute in Oklahoma City. Below are some selected passages from the study:

Risk of eye injuries

“While there is little or no risk of biological damage resulting from momentary exposure to laser pointers, misuse of these devices can and has resulted in ocular injury. Such injuries from laser pointers are usually the result of prolonged self-exposure or malicious illumination by another individual.”

“Visible and near-infrared wavelengths (400-1400 nm) are focused by the cornea and lens and absorbed by the retina. Injury occurs when the energy level and duration of a laser exposure are sufficient to damage the eye’s retina. Since the power output of laser pointers is relatively low (< 5 milliwatts), an exposure that could cause injury must be from close range (10 feet or less) and be several seconds to a few minutes in duration. Retinal injury can result from a delayed photo- chemical reaction or acute thermal damage caused by the absorption of laser energy in the retinal tissue. While these injuries can sometimes result in permanent visual impairment, exposure from a laser pointer is not likely to cause biological dam- age to aircraft pilots due to atmospheric attenuation, extended distance, and low power output.”

1997 incident in Manchester influences Britain to ban laser pointers over 1 mW

“Laser pointers can pose a threat to commercial aviation safety. The most serious recorded aviation incident occurred on October 29, 1997, when an Airworld Airbus carrying passengers enroute from Crete, was illuminated by laser light about two miles from Manchester Airport (England) at an altitude of 600 feet AGL. While the plane was on approach, the captain was forced to look away as a laser pointer illuminated the cockpit. The Civil Aviation Authority warned the public that endangering an airline pilot in-flight is a criminal offense carrying a maximum two-year jail sentence. As a result of this and other incidents, the British government subsequently banned the sale of more powerful laser pointers (i.e., those with a maximum power output > 1 mW).”

Summary of recommendations

“In summary, when used properly, the risk of eye injury from a laser pointer is extremely low. An individual who receives a transient exposure may experience a dazzling effect, resulting in distraction or temporary visual impairment. The duration and severity of these effects varies between individuals and with their state of dark adaptation at the time of exposure. An eye examination to rule out permanent eye injury from a laser illumination should be performed if afterimages persist for several hours or if a loss of clarity is apparent.”

“To reduce the risk of eye injury, should they fall into the hands of children or irresponsible individuals, Class II laser pointers (rather than Class IIIA) are recommended for use by the general public. An increase in the perceived brightness of red laser pointers can be achieved without the need for additional power by selecting those that emit light of wavelengths shorter than 670 nm. While Class IIIA laser pointers can continue to be used by responsible adults, they should be replaced by lower powered pointers whenever possible.

“Finally, to minimize the threat to aviation safety, pilots should be educated on the dangers of in-flight laser illumination and how to best compensate for its debilitating effects. Although the FAA has established guidelines to protect flight crewmembers from laser illumination during terminal operations, additional regulations may be necessary to defend against the careless or malicious misuse of these devices.”