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The Laser Liability

I am on a mission to stop people losing vision from handheld laser devices.

Why? A few years ago, a patient of mine – a young child – was left with the vision of a 60-year-old because of a handheld laser pointer. At the time, I couldn’t believe that a “toy” could cause that much damage, but when the offending device was tested, we found that its power output was actually 40–50 times greater than the recommended level.

This isn’t a freak accident. We surveyed 153 ophthalmologists and found that 54 had seen at least one patient with a macular injury secondary to a laser device (1), and shockingly, the vast majority of these were children under the age of 10. Worse, seven of the reported cases involved lasers with an output level exceeding 50 mW – well above the FDA-recommended output of 5 mW. It’s easy to understand why. High-power handheld laser pointers are freely available (particularly online), and it transpires that many are mislabeled – they are far more powerful than they state on the label. Clearly, this is a problem that needs to be tackled, so part of my mission is to increase public awareness, improve the safety of available devices and ideally get dangerous and mislabeled pointers banned.

It is a fact of life that some children and adults lose vision to disease. But to lose vision to a device that shouldn’t even be available in the first place is unnecessary, and it’s a tragedy that children may suffer permanent visual damage because of a momentary lapse in judgement. Indeed, I don’t know what the long-term consequences are – I am still observing some of my cases on a longitudinal basis to get a better idea of what is going to happen in the future.

To prevent these types of injuries from occurring, I have a call to action. We need to improve the regulation on these devices worldwide, so that they meet defined safety standards and are labelled appropriately. We have to give out greater penalties for traders who knowingly sell mislabeled devices. Granted, imposing a blanket ban on handheld lasers is not going to solve all of the problems, but action like classifying high-power lasers as offensive weapons would send a strong message about how dangerous these devices can be. Public awareness (particularly in schools) needs to be better, but at the moment funding and support aren’t forthcoming as it is viewed as a small problem.

I am continuing my fight here in the UK, and I invite you all to join me. If you are seeing these cases, please raise awareness. Inform your local law enforcement about illegal or mislabeled devices, get local politicians involved, and try to collect as much information as you can. As the physicians who will see the injuries that result from laser pointer misuse, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that we don’t remain silent, that we collect cases and data, and make those in power aware of the problem and what needs to be done. We are here to treat, but we also have a responsibility to protect public ocular health.

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  1. F Quhill et al., “Macular Injury due to handheld laser devices: results of a survey among consultant ophthalmologists in the UK”. Poster presented at the American Academy of Ophthalmology, Chicago, October 17, 2016. Poster #PO423.
About the Author
Fahd Quhill

Fahd Quhill is a Consultant Ophthalmologist at Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield, UK

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