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March 26, 2013

Slate: Your laser pointer is probably illegal

For all the whining everyone's always doing about jetpacks and other tech of the future, you'd think we'd be more impressed with the teeming abundance and affordability of lasers. In fact, we're so over Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, we've relegated the technology to kitschy beach-shop key chains and board games for nerds.

And yet a new study shows a majority of the dinky laser pointers on the market exceed the power level limits set by the Code of Federal Regulations, which means a whole lot of twerps out there wield far more retina-burning power than they should.

That laser pointers are potentially dangerous shouldn't come as any big surprise. However, ubiquity has a way of breeding a lack of respect. And lack of respect leads people to point electromagnetic radiation at the eye holes of rival soccer clubs or helicopter and airplane pilots.

"The human eye is a fantastic optical instrument capable of concentrating light a 100,000 times onto the retina," explains Joshua Hadler, physicist and laser safety officer for the National Institute of Standards and Technology Laser Radiometry Project. "More than a few milliwatts at the cornea can be focused to a spot so small that the power density on the retina can become greater than that generated when staring into the sun."

Power limits put in place by the CFR cap laser pointers at 5 milliwatts. Anything more powerful than that is technically not a "laser pointer" — that is, a handheld laser intended to trick an audience into thinking your PowerPoint slides are even vaguely interesting. Which is why it's concerning that Hadler and his co-authors Marla Dowell and Edna Tobares found some of the laser pointers they tested to be well above the 5 milliwatt output advertised on the labels. One showoff laser pointer clocked in at an absurd 66.5 milliwatts.

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