Both the US FDA and the EU are trying to remove hazardous lasers from the consumer field, but regulation and enforcement will need to be matched by a public willingness to understand the level of danger.
If high power lasers are as widespread as they seem, some may ask, why is there not already public outcry following a stream of laser injuries? Well, to harm your eye the laser needs to shine through the pupil, which highlights the most difficult part of raising awareness of laser safety. Your pupil is a very small area and so a beam shining around a room is very unlikely to hit exactly that spot. Most of the time nothing happens, but if it does, the result can be life changing.
For airline pilots, hazard comes even without permanent eye damage. A bright light entering the cockpit during take-off or landing can cause a distraction – and even a brief distraction during these crucial parts of a flight has the potential to cause serious consequences. In the US the FAA provide guidance for airline pilots on laser hazards. Some safety specialists offer glasses which can block the most common laser colours, but this can also change how the cockpit controls look to the pilot.
As our lives become more and more surrounded by lasers – they even drive BMW’s latest car headlamps – we need seriously to understand them. In the mean time, if you want a laser pointer, make sure you get one that is properly certified (CE marked with a yellow and black label in the EU). It may cost more, but you will know it is safe.