Eye damage unlikely from laser pointer attacks

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Image: Netweb01 CC BY-SA 3.0

Laser pointers do not cause long-term eye damage to pilots, a recent editorial published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology (BJO) says.

The editorial notes that more powerful hand-held lasers have proliferated in recent years. Class 4 laser devices with power of up to 6000 milliwatts can be bought freely on the internet and warns that these ‘are capable of causing irreversible retinal damage if directed into the eye over short ranges, up to several metres’.

The authors say pilots are at less risk because of the greater distance lasers shone irresponsibly at aircraft from the ground have to cover, and the protective effect of the aircraft windscreen.

‘Fortunately, these exposures are at irradiances that are incapable of producing irreversible retinal damage even at distances of 100 metres,’ the BJO editorial says.

The authors note there has only been one reported case of retinal damage to a pilot as a result of a laser pointer being directed at an aircraft.

The case was reported in Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance earlier this year, detailing how a pilot suffered retinal laser burn after a blue laser beam was directed at his aircraft, which was at 1300 feet.

The editorial describes this case as ‘suspect, ‘arguing that the distance ‘would suggest insufficient energy could have entered the eye to produce irreversible damage, and that the reported eye anomaly ‘is in the wrong location, the wrong shape and resulted in an extremely transient reported loss of visual acuity with full recovery.’

‘The profession should be reassured that standards and international guidelines to protect individuals against laser radiation are based on extensive empirical data derived from exposures in monkeys and crosschecked with exposures in man,’ the authors say

However, the BJO has no sympathy for those who shine lasers at aircraft.

‘The practice is, however, totally unacceptable, given the potential consequences of distracting a pilot at a critical time and has now resulted in prosecutions and in some cases prison sentences.

‘Unfortunately, even with the possibility of custodial sentences, such incidents are on the increase with more than1500 such incidents being reported in the last 12 months within the UK.’

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