Hand-held lasers and laser pointers
Hand-held lasers and laser pointers are popular in Canada. First introduced in the 1960s, lasers are now used in many ways in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, many people who use them don't know about their potential dangers. High powered hand-held lasers are considered a danger to human health or safety. Their import or sale is prohibited under the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act.
"Laser" is an acronym that stands for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation." The light beam from a laser is a condensed source of light, usually in the form of a small narrow beam. A simple hand-held laser pointer can be more than a million times brighter than the average 100-watt light bulb in your home.
Battery powered hand-held lasers may resemble pens or flashlights. These are most commonly used to point at objects in lectures or presentations. However they may also be advertised for other uses.
How lasers are classified
Manufacturers often classify their laser products using an international standard. Under the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Standard 60825-1, laser products are categorized in the following order, from the lowest to highest potential risk: Class 1, 1M, 2, 2M, 3R, 3B and 4. To help reduce potential health risks, battery powered hand-held lasers and laser pointers should be Class 3R/IIIa or less (which usually have a power output of 5mW or less). A controlled laser safety environment and professional laser safety training are necessary for the safe operation of Class 3B/IIIb and 4/IV lasers. If the classification of a laser is unclear, the manufacturer or retailer should be contacted for more information.
Concerns with the use of hand-held lasers and laser pointers
Most concerns about lasers are related to misuse and accidental exposure.
Lasers emitting accessible visible radiation with a power output of greater than 5 milliwatts (i.e. Class 3B and 4 levels) have:
- intense radiation emissions
- enough power to pose a fire hazard
- the potential to cause serious harm
Exposure to a direct or reflected beam for even a fraction of a second may cause:
- permanent eye damage
For these reasons, high-powered handheld lasers and laser pointers are considered a danger to human health and safety.
Even a quick look into the beam of any laser, at any classification, can result in flash blindness. Flash blindness is temporary and vision returns to normal with no long-term effects.
A longer look into the beam can cause more serious damage to the eyes. This damage may be worse if the laser beam is projected through a piece of optical equipment, such as:
- a telescope
It is important to read the label and be cautious when using hand-held lasers and laser pointers.
How lasers are labelled
Valuable information is provided on laser labels such as the classification, wavelength (colour) and power of the laser beam (described in milliwatts/mW). The label also warns users not to look directly into the beam and not to look into the laser beam through optical instruments like microscopes, magnifying glass, telescopes or binoculars. The label may also tell the user if the laser beam is visible or invisible.
Here are examples of warning labels that may be on a laser:
The manufacturer should also provide the user with laser safety guidelines for safe operation. Make sure to read the information carefully to understand the potential hazards and how to avoid them.
Reduce your risk
Laser pointers categorized as Class 3R/IIIa or lower can be operated safely if used as directed and should always be used with caution. Here are a few guidelines to reduce your risk.
- Be wary of internet sales or the purchase of lasers advertised for purposes other than pointing or beam-display (ex: for burning, balloon popping).
- Look for warning labels, safety features and instructions which explain how to properly handle the laser.
- Choose a laser pointer that stays on only when the button is pressed. That way you can never leave the beam on by accident.
- Never point a laser beam at anyone, nor look directly into the beam.
- Never aim a laser pointer at surfaces that would reflect the light back, like mirrors or mirrored surfaces.
- Never aim a direct bright light source like a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft. It is a federal offence under the Aeronautics Act. It can jeopardize aviation safety and can be hazardous to pilots and threaten passenger safety. Just as with aircrafts, do not aim at cars and trucks.
- Never leave a laser pointer within the reach of children. Do not allow children to use laser pointers.
- If you are uncertain about the classification of a laser, contact the manufacturer or retailer.
- Never 'play around' with lasers, as they can be a fire hazard, cause flash blindedness or even permanent eye damage.
Government of Canada's Role
Lasers are regulated under the:
This includes hazards as a result of normal or any foreseeable use.
Hand-held Class 3B and 4 laser pointers are considered a danger to human health or safety under the CCPSA. They are therefore prohibited in Canada from being:
In addition, under REDA it is prohibited to sell, lease or import into Canada a laser that creates a risk to any person of genetic or personal injury, impairment of health or death from radiation by reason of the fact that it: either does not perform according to the characteristics claimed for it; does not accomplish its claimed purpose; or emits radiation that is not necessary in order for it to accomplish its claimed purpose. Health Canada takes appropriate action when non-compliant lasers are found.
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