Laser pointers shine a focused beam of high intensity light, usually red. Most laser pointers have an upper limit of 1 milliwatt (mW) of energy, which is not enough to damage the eyes. The U.S. legal limit for handheld laser power is 5 mW. However, some individuals have found ways to access laser devices intended only for commercial use. These “class 4” lasers have energy outputs of up to 6000 mW and are capable of causing irreversible eye damage if directed into the eye from a distance of up to several meters. Children and adults are buying the laser pointers as toys. Because of the potential for eye injuries, the FDA has now mandated that laser pointers carry warning labels mentioning possible retinal damage. Unfortunately, these devices are still advertised as toys and are often not labeled as hazardous.

In 2010, the American Academy of Ophthalmology issued a consumer warning about high-powered laser pointers that are even more dangerous than other types. The organization cited the case of a teenaged boy who suffered retinal injuries while playing with the pointer in front of a mirror. The injured boy had purchased a 150 mW device on the Internet. The case was reported in the Sept. 8 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

In May 2016, reports of handheld lasers directed at aircraft were on the rise, and there’s reason to be alarmed. Still, experts say there’s little need to fear that this will damage pilots’ eyesight because the beam must travel hundreds to thousands of meters through both the atmosphere and the cockpit canopy or windshield, which limits its power to damage the retina. The real danger lies in the distraction caused by the dazzle from the beam. If such a distraction occurs during landing the result could be devastating.