WEDNESDAY, Sept. 8 (HealthDay News) -- A 15-year-old Swiss boy
attempted to create his own laser show using a laser pointer he
bought on the Internet and a mirror. Instead, he inadvertently
beamed the laser into his eyes, creating permanent damage to his
"These high-power laser products are very dangerous," said Dr. Martin Schmid, head of the retina unit in the department of ophthalmology at Lucerne Cantonal Hospital in Switzerland. Schmid is also one of the authors of the case report detailing the young boy's eye damage in a letter in the Sept. 9 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Schmid said that part of the problem is that not all laser
pointers are labeled properly, so it's not always easy to know if
you have a pointer that could create serious damage. One sure way
to know if you have a potentially dangerous laser pointer is if the
laser can burn through paper, explained Schmid.
"Every laser pointer which is capable of burning holes into paper or of lighting matches or of popping balloons is highly dangerous for the eye and must not be used by non-professionals," he cautioned.
Those are exactly some of the uses the Swiss youngster was
planning for his laser pointer. He told doctors that he purchased
the laser pointer so that he could pop balloons from a distance,
burn holes in paper cards and burn holes in his sister's
While he was attempting his "laser light show," the teen said
that the laser beam hit his eyes several times. Although he
immediately noticed that his vision was blurry, he was afraid to
tell his parents what had happened. He waited two weeks before
letting them know that he was still experiencing blurred
The vision in his left eye was so damaged that he couldn't count
how many fingers a doctor was holding up until they were just three
feet away. His visual acuity in his right eye was 20/50.
Schmid said the boy wasn't sure if the laser was dangerous, and
he definitely didn't know it could cause immediate eye injury.
When the teenager's eyes were examined, doctors discovered that
there had been significant internal bleeding in the left eye and
that there were several small scars in the right eye. Even with
treatment, there's still a scar that diminished the boy's vision in
his left eye. However, his visual acuity has returned to near
normal, according to the report.
The laser used by the boy produced an output of 150 milliwatts
(mW), far above the maximal output of 5 mW that's expected from a
laser pointer sold to the public. The authors point out that it's
possible to purchase laser pointers as strong as 700 mW, although
such a device may not look any different than a lower-powered
Additionally, Schmid said there are instructions available over
the Internet for turning low-power devices into high-powered
And, the authors pointed out, high-powered laser pointers can
produce immediate and severe retinal injury -- so severe that even
blindness can occur.
Dr. Roy Chuck, chair of ophthalmology and visual sciences at
Montefiore Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of
Medicine in New York City, said, "We've seen lots of cases of laser
burns, usually from researchers giving presentations, but now we're
seeing more cases of people ordering these products over the
Internet, though eye injuries in lay people are still pretty
Chuck said that children shouldn't have access to laser
pointers. "They're not giving presentations, so why would they need
to have them?" He said that when it comes to laser toys -- like
those used for laser tag -- buying a well-known name brand may be
helpful in this case. "When you're buying off the Internet, it's
not as regulated and you just can't tell what the strength of the
laser is," noted Chuck.
Schmid added that lasers used in toys will generally be labeled
as Class 1, although he said that products aren't always labeled
And, even if you've purchased a "safe" laser toy, it's possible
that creative children may turn to the Internet and figure out ways
to boost the power of the laser. "By searching YouTube for 'burning
laser pointers,' you will find a huge amount of videos showing such
dangerous experiments. Moreover, there is an increasing number of
homepages and videos demonstrating how to turn legal low-power
lasers into burning, high-power lasers," said Schmid.
Learn more about laser pointer safety from the
Laser Institute of America.