Teen plays with laser pointer, causes serious damage to retinas
If you have cats as pets, it's more than likely you have one of these common objects stashed in a drawer somewhere. However, a "very brief period of time" with this item — one that is often marketed as a toy — has left a teenage boy in Tasmania with potentially irreversible retinal damage.
Optometrist Ben Armitage of Hobart tells ABC of a recent patient who unwittingly burned both his retinas, limiting his vision to 25 percent of 20/20. The 14-year-old patient had reportedly been playing with a laser pointer pen and shined the beam in his eyes "for a very brief period of time." Though the boy did not experience any pain, that short exposure to the laser was enough to burn the backs of his eyes, in an area Armitage informs reporters is called the macular. He elaborates, "unfortunately, that's the area where your detailed central vision takes place and, therefore, it's had somewhat of an exaggerated effect on how much sight he's lost."
According to Armitage, there is some residual swelling from the burns that may decrease over time, but it's highly unlikely that the teenager will recover his vision. Additionally, the loss in sight cannot be corrected with glasses. Armitage uses the analogy of a camera to explain: "it doesn't matter how good a lens you put on the front of the camera. It's never going to overcome damage to the film or the sensor at the back."
This case is not an isolated incident. The National Center for Biotechnology Information published a study in which a 13-year-old boy also suffered bilateral macular damage from playing with a green laser pointer; the boy's vision improved over the course of three months but was still significantly impaired. Similarly, the New England Journal of Medicine reported about a 15-year-old who suffered a "dense subretinal hemorrhage in his left macula and several tiny round scars in the pigment epithelium of the foveolar region of his right eye." In this case, the boy had been using a green laser pointer as "a toy for popping balloons from a distance and burning holes into paper cards and his sister's sneakers," but the trouble truly began when he aimed the beam at a mirror and accidentally directed the laser at his eyes. The American Academy of Ophthalmology notes that researchers in Saudi Arabia reported 14 unique instances of patients seeking medical treatment for laser-induced eye injuries spanning from January 2012 to January 2013 alone.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urges consumers to exercise extreme caution when handling laser pointers, emphasizing that they are not toys. In a safety alert, the FDA lists the following instructions to prevent eye injuries:
1. Never aim or shine a laser pointer at anyone.
2. Don't buy laser pointers for your children.
3. Before purchasing a laser pointer, make sure it has the following information on the label:
— a statement that it complies with Chapter 21 CFR (the Code of Federal Regulations)
— the manufacturer or distributor's name and the date of manufacture
— a warning to avoid exposure to laser radiation
— the class designation, ranging from Class I to IIIa. Class IIIb and IV products should be used only by individuals with proper training and in applications where there is a legitimate need for these high-powered products.
§ ABC, The National Center for Biotechnology Information, The New England Journal of Medicine, The American Academy of Ophthalmology, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration