As a result of the misuse of lasers, kids are being exposed to serious eye injuries. This past summer, a 9-year-old in Greece permanently damaged his left eye by staring at the light emitting from a laser pointer. According to a study by the University of Bonn, at least 111 cases have been documented in medical journals since 2000 of acute or permanent eye damage from laser pointers. A study in Pediatrics of four examples over a two-year period found that three resulted in permanent retina damage, even after treatment.

Part of the problem is the misuse of laser products. However, another consideration is that the laser safety compliance of these products is largely self-certified, meaning the laser product manufacturer can evaluate their products to the regulations and state compliance. But the laser testing, analysis, and overall compliance can be complicated, and the regulations may not be easily understood by those without ongoing experience in using them. The overall result can be some instances of laser power levels in toys and other products that are higher than what is stated on the label. For example, a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology of 122 commercial laser pointers found that 89.7 percent of green pointers and 44.4 percent of red pointers were not in compliance with FDA regulations, producing laser power in excess of the Accessible Emission Limit at one or more laser wavelengths.

“Product manufacturers obviously have a great understanding of their products and the function of the laser they are employing in those products, but may not have a lot of experience with navigating the laser safety regulations. In the US, the FDA allows laser product manufacturers to self-certify that their products meet the regulations, and document this self-certification with a laser report submitted to the FDA. However, the FDA does not always review the reports when they receive them. If there is an issue with the self-certification – maybe due to a misunderstanding of a requirement or an honest mistake – it might not get caught right away. However, once that laser report is sent to the FDA, the product is eligible to be sold, marketed, or imported into the US,” explains Winn Henderson, senior staff engineer in UL’s Consumer Technology division.

What you need to know about lasers in toys and other products

For lasers, the FDA recognizes four major laser classes (designated with Roman Numerals I to IV) and three subclasses (IIa, IIIa and IIIb). You may also see another type of laser classification using Arabic Numerals 1-4 with subclasses – this other type is the International (IEC) laser classification, and it can be accepted by the US FDA. The IEC classification scheme is becoming more widely used since it is accepted both inside and outside the US. The higher the class, the more powerful the laser, and greater the potential for injury if used improperly. Established safety Standards typically require lasers in toys to be Class 1 (the least hazardous class), and no higher, while many laser pointers are in the FDA Class IIIa or IEC Class 3R range – these classes are the highest allowed by the FDA for laser pointers and equate to a maximum 5mW of laser power. Laser pointers with power levels over 5mW are illegal in the US.

For US / FDA compliance, laser products must bear a label claiming to comply with Title 21 Code of Federal Regulations (Subchapter J, Radiological Health - the FDA regulatory code governing laser products), along with its laser class and laser power. However, stating the laser class and power on a product may be optional for the least hazardous Class 1. For products such as laser pointers or laser levels, you could use the label information to buy the least powerful laser that meets your needs. Also, look for the UL Mark, which means that the product meets electrical, fire, shock and laser standards. However, since manufacturers have the option of self-certifying their own laser compliance, one way to ensure UL confirmed the laser output by testing and analysis is to look for the new UL Verified Mark on any laser product. To be eligible for the laser UL Verified Mark, UL confirms that the product emits low levels of laser radiation in one of UL’s Laser Radiation Laboratories.

How to use toys with lasers

Because lasers, even in toys, can cause permanent damage to the retina, it’s important to operate them properly. Here’s what the FDA recommends:

  • Teach your children to never aim or shine a laser directly, even a laser in a toy, at anyone, including animals. The laser’s light energy aimed into the eye can be hazardous, perhaps even more than staring directly into the sun.
  • Teach children to never look directly at a laser light.
  • Do not aim a laser at any vehicle, aircraft or shiny surface, which can cause serious accidents.
  • Look for a Class I label on children’s toy lasers. The label says “Class 1 Laser Product.”
  • Do not buy laser pointers for children; do not allow kids to use laser pointers, even those made for pets to chase.
  • Immediately consult a health care professional if you or a child suspects or experiences any eye injury. Learn more in the FDA’s video on laser pointer safety.
  • Don’t allow kids to break open a laser toy, since this could damage the optical component of a laser, making it more hazardous.
  • Supervise younger kids while they’re playing with laser toys.

What about LEDs?

LEDs are similar to lasers in that they emit either visible or invisible radiation that can be harmful to the skin or eyes under certain circumstances. However, based on specific characteristics of LED radiation, these devices are typically treated like lamps instead of lasers when it comes to radiation safety. There is a specific set of requirements, different from lasers, that assess their potential radiation hazards. These requirements result in assigning a Risk Group to the LED radiation that can be “Exempt” (least hazardous), Risk Group 1, Risk Group 2, or Risk Group 3 (most hazardous). Also, established safety Standards for toys typically require that the LED radiation be under certain limits in order for them to be considered safe.

One area of concern for LED radiation has been the blue light hazard, which can cause photochemical retinal injuries from exposure in wavelengths between 300-700nm. Of course, blue light may come from blue LEDs, but white LEDs also have a spike of blue wavelengths as well.

“Outside the US, LED radiation has historically been treated similarly to lasers, as far as the requirements that evaluate the radiation levels and that look at potential hazards to the skin and eyes,” Henderson says. “In 2007, LEDs were removed from the IEC laser standard because a separate standard was created to assess the photobiological safety of lamps, including LEDs. in the US, even though the FDA does not have specific LED radiation requirements like they do for lasers, it is a good idea for parents to watch out for LEDs in toys.”

Be sure that children do not look directly at LED lights in toys or other products, or shine them at other people or animals. Supervise young children when they’re playing with toys with LED lights.

How UL helps

“As lasers and LEDs become more prevalent in products, from lasers in mobile phones for facial recognition, to lidar on autonomous vehicles, to LEDs used for in-home camera night vision, UL will continue to help manufacturers evaluate the safety of the radiation emitted and confirm compliance with the FDA and IEC Standards”, Henderson says. “Even if a product is in the design phase, we have the ability to assist in navigating the requirements early on in the process.”

While laser toys can be fun and other laser products can make tasks easier, they can also pose a hazard, so use these tips to keep your family safe.