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Monday, November 24, 1997 Published at 17:01 GMT


Eye expert challenges laser pen 'danger'

A leading eye specialist has dismissed as "absolute rubbish" claims that laser pens can cause blindness.

Professor John Marshall, who runs the ophthalmology department at St Thomas's Hospital in London, said the worst that could happen if a laser pen were shone directly onto the retina was a very temporary loss of vision followed by a few minutes of disorientation.

He has written to the Consumer Affairs Minister, Nigel Griffiths, to complain about the effects being exaggerated.

"These devices absolutely do not cause permanent blindness ... they have been around for over 30 years," he told us.

The "James Bond" effect

There has been an increasing level of public concern over commercially available laser pointers after they were alleged to have caused serious eye damage in a number of cases.

The pens are intended as a replacement for the old-fashioned pointing sticks used by lecturers.

But there has been a spate of high profile cases where top sportsmen and pop stars have complained of laser pens being shone in their eyes.

Prof Marshall, who is also laser safety officer at Moorfields Eye Hospital, said that public concern over laser pens had more to do with James Bond than scientific fact.

"People should think of CDs and checkout scanners rather than Goldfinger," he said.

Prof Marshall, who has worked in the field of laser safety since the 1960s, said he was particularly incensed about a recent report from Tyneside about a cat being tortured and blinded by a laser pointer.

He said that it would be "virtually impossible" to blind a cat in this way, even with a surgical laser, because of the way their eyes reflect the light.

He said that the new widely available laser pointers had a radiant emission of five milliwatts, which even if shone directly into the eye would cause less dazzle than a bright flashbulb.

While there have been many claims for ocular injury as a result of misuse of the pointers - none had so far been upheld.

Many victims complain of pain, loss of vision and headaches after an attack. But there are no pain receptors in the retina and headaches are not a side effect of laser damage. According to Prof Marshall these after-effects are more likely to be due to eye drops and the stress of worrying about eye damage.

Prof Marshall emphasised that he did not condone the misuse of laser pointers and said they could be very dangerous if shone in peoples' eyes while they were driving.

But he maintained the safety margins in the codes of practice governing the strength of commercially available laser pens, were so large that none of the pointers on sale to the public could possibly permanently damage the human retina.

The professor said he was putting together an information leaflet for opticians and hospitals to allay public fears about the laser pointers.


But trading standards departments across the country are considering prosecuting manufacturers of the pens. In Newcastle upon Tyne all laser pens have been withdrawn from sale after the incident in Tyneside where it was reported that a cat was tortured by a gang of youths who held it down and directed the light in its eyes.

The Consumer Affairs Minister has demanded that such "potentially dangerous products" be removed from sale.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has warned that people found guilty of using laser pens to cause injury, can expect up to five years in prison.

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