A few months ago, I was approached by a company called TechLasers about doing a review of a green laser product of theirs. Now, I have to admit, I have always thought that lasers ( which stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) were incredibly “cool”. Recently they have been made even more famous through TV shows like C.S.I. as they are used to recreate bullet trajectories. Lasers nowadays are in so many different products that we use daily, the most notable being CD/DVD players and bar scanners in supermarkets and stores. If you work at an office, you probably also have a laser printer. Lasers have revolutionized surgery as well. (Read up on lasers on Wikipedia.) I had always wanted to have a laser pointer when I was younger. My “dream” finally came true when I received a laser pointer/LED flashlight from a vendor at a tradeshow as a giveaway. But I digress…
Prior to being contacted by TechLasers, I had very little knowledge of laser pointers or laser technology in general. What I did know was rudimentary: there were different types, red, green and blue, for example. Red was the most common and green and blue being much more powerful and expensive, at least in the “laser pointer” market. The more powerful the laser pointer, the further it could go. I also knew that lasers do not get perceptively wider or less dim as they travel distances (they actually do obviously). Think about a flashlight, the further away it is, the wider the dispersal of the beam and the dimmer the beam. With a laser, if you were to measure the glowing red or green dot as it appears 10 feet away or 1000 feet away, it would be practically the same size and brightness (obviously, it does change somewhat the further the light travels).
Of course, this is a dramatic over-simplification of this technology, and I’m only specifically talking about the visible spectrum. Other types that most people have heard of are X-ray, Ultraviolet and Infrared lasers.
I’m not going to write an article about what lasers are or how they work. I am, however, going to discuss how you might use them within a family environment and the safety concerns and legality of using them.
I want to get this out there now, lasers are dangerous. You should NOT let your children play with them or even leave them around for them to have access to in any way. Even the variety that you can easily get now at trade show or at the hardware store counter can cause eye damage. Also, depending on the type and the strength, they could be illegal to sell, own and/or use.
It took me a while to agree to do this post. The guys over at TechLasers have been extremely patient with me as I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about something that could harm kids. So I decided to do more of a post that lets you know about both the hazards and possible uses with your family.
First, the Laser that I received from TechLasers is really superb. It is called the Infiniti II 95mW Green Pointing Laser. It retails for about $300 so this is not your average laser pointer or even GREEN laser pointer. This laser is actually powerful enough to pop dark colored balloons, light matches and burn dark colored objects. It is completely visible by day, not only the dot, but the beam as well. The beam itself on this laser can actually travel about 60 miles! This is very different than the “run of the mill” red lasers which are hard to see during the day. This green laser is actually powerful enough to “sting the skin” (something I haven’t tested myself and don’t suggest trying). TechLasers recommends that you also get some safety googles (Laser Shades) for use when using these lasers.
The laser that I tested was a Class IIIb and had an output power of 95mW (milliwatts). According to Wikipedia, normal Consumer laser pointers have a power output of less than 1mW, next is 5mW (CD-ROM drive), then 5-10mW (DVD players) and then 100mW (high-speed CD-RW burners). Laser classes are broken down as follows (from Wikipedia):
- Class I/1 is inherently safe, usually because the light is contained in an enclosure, for example in cd players.
- Class II/2 is safe during normal use; the blink reflex of the eye will prevent damage. Usually up to 1 mW power, for example laser pointers.
- Class IIIa/3R lasers are usually up to 5 mW and involve a small risk of eye damage within the time of the blink reflex. Staring into such a beam for several seconds is likely to cause (minor) eye damage.
- Class IIIb/3B can cause immediate severe eye damage upon exposure. Usually lasers up to 500 mW, such as those in cd and dvd burners.
- Class IV/4 lasers can burn skin, and in some cases, even scattered light can cause eye and/or skin damage. Many industrial and scientific lasers are in this class.
There are some uses for green lasers around the home or with your family. Recently, we were at a beach during the night and it was extremely easy to point out star constellations in the sky. The green beam was clearly visible during the night. Also, these lasers are great on camping trips, potentially as a safety beacon (should you get lost) or to scare off predators. Remember though, these can cause serious eye damage to humans and animals so use extreme caution. I could even see it being used at a birthday party to “magically” pop balloons filled with confetti from a distance.
But before you start going crazy using your green laser or even thinking about buying one, you should probably know some of the laws governing their usage (a post on this forum sites some of the laws). I have not done a huge amount of research but did want to provide some information that any laser user should know:
- Lasers are dangerous – as I said before, they can cause eye damage
- Don’t use around airports – this is actually a Federal crime
- Don’t use as weapons – this is a crime as well
- Some high-powered lasers are illegal to buy – this depends on the laser class.
- Lasers should have safety systems – For example, according to the Techlaser site, class IIIb lasers must have: a 5-point safety system that includes an aperture shutter, key switch, indicator LED, interlock and output delay
- Watch out for “Imports” – be careful if you are buying green lasers on eBay, for example as the FDA regulations require rigid safety systems be built into all lasers imported into the US.
- If you point at a plane, you will go to jail – trust me, you absolutely don’t want to do this for so many reasons, including your own jail time, endangering others, etc.
The FDA (yes, Food & Drug Administration as related to Radiological Health) actually has some pretty strong languages regarding lasers. Before you purchase one, I would recommend reading through this page on the FDA site. Some highlights:
- Class IIIa or IEC Class 3R lasers are dangerous and can cause temporary visual effects (flash blinding).
- Class IIIb lasers cannot legally be promoted as laser pointers or demonstration laser products
- Class IIIa & IIIb must have warning labels, key switches and connector for remote interlock.
You should also take some time to fully understand the FAA regulations surrounding the use of laser pointers. There is (of course) a very extensive Wikipedia article about Lasers & Aviation Safety. There is a lot of stuff to digest on this page. I always feel that a picture is worth a thousand words so I have included some animations that illustrate the effects of green lasers on a cockpit at various distances.
350 feet away (Note the effect of the “flash blindness” here.)
Summing it all up
The laser I received from TechLasers is pretty amazing. Compared to the 5 milliwatt ones that my friends have, this 95mW one is literally blinding. As a general concept, owning a laser is pretty fun. We once had fun watching a cat chase the laser point all over the garden. Being able to point out start or other objects clearly and easily is really helpful. But, lasers are definitely not toys and should be treated like one treats a sharp knife.
Bottom line, you are well advised to read up on the legality of buying and owning lasers and where and how you can use them. Used safely and properly, they can be educational and fun. Used improperly, they can seriously injure people’s eyes and even land you with a big fine or in jail.
HTD Says: Just be a good parent or adult when you use any type of laser pointer, and do have some educational fun with it.