Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Saturday, 4 October 2008 00:00 UK

Laser pens face sales crackdown

Plane landing
Dozens of pilots have been temporarily blinded by laser pointers when landing

The internet trading companies eBay and Amazon are removing high-powered green laser pens from sale on their sites.

The move follows a BBC investigation which found some of these potentially dangerous products were being sold irresponsibly by individual traders.

Many listings describe the pens as toys or, in one case, "wicked gadgets".

But RAF and police helicopters have been among dozens of aircraft targeted by these devices, which can send a beam several miles, dazzling pilots.

EBay told the Donal MacIntyre programme on BBC Radio 5 live it had become "increasingly concerned" by reports of these lasers being used for "wholly inappropriate purposes".

Amazon.co.uk said it would "remove the listings for these products as quickly as possible".

'Russian roulette'

One man in Manchester was recently jailed for four months for endangering an aircraft after repeatedly shining a laser into the cockpit of a police helicopter from the ground.

If I was doing a rescue and I was being affected by a laser light, I would probably curtail the rescue
Flight Lt Bob Dewes
The pilot, who was over Stockport at the time, was temporarily blinded. Unable to read his instruments, he had to make dangerous emergency manoeuvres.

This case highlights a growing concern about the inappropriate use of more powerful green laser pens or pointers.

Britain's largest pilots union BALPA has recently warned of a major air disaster unless action is taken.

The union said the perpetrators are "playing Russian roulette" with the lives of hundreds of passengers, and has suggested that some laser pens should be classified as weapons.

Concern

Figures from the Civil Aviation Authority show that in 2007 there were 27 incidents involving commercial aeroplanes. Eighty cases have been reported so far this year.

HOW TO LISTEN...
The Donal MacIntyre programme is on Radio 5 Live on Sunday, 5 October at 1900 BST.

Flight Lieutenant Bob Dewes is a search and rescue pilot based at RAF Wattisham in Suffolk. He described how a laser beam targeted his helicopter when on a training exercise in September.

"It's a real problem," he said.

"If I was doing a rescue and I was being affected by a laser light, I would probably curtail the rescue.

"Not only would we be put in danger at that point, but the person we were going to rescue would be seriously put in danger as well".

Low-powered laser pens under one milliwatt (mW) - often used for presentations - are considered safe enough to be on general sale.

But stronger lasers are causing concern - particularly those over 5 mW - including some used by astronomers or scientists which can be as powerful as 240 mW.

At close range they can cause permanent blindness and skin burns, while at longer range they can still cause temporary sightlessness.

Warnings

The Health Protection Agency says laser pens over 1mW should not be sold to the general public. Traders must issue warnings and many legitimate retailers carry out checks to ensure purchasers understand the risks.

We have decided to introduce a ban on all high powered pointers
eBay.co.uk
But the Donal MacIntyre programme found lasers of 240mW available on eBay for as little as 20, with no warnings.

One Amazon review said "It burns holes in plastic and is so bright. A bit like something from Star Wars."

An advert on eBay described a "Powerful Green Laser Pointer Pen: suitable for star gazing, lab experiments, projection on low clouds, even fun and games at night clubs and discos."

The programme contacted one internet seller on Amazon, asking for a laser to "just shine about". He recommended buying one of 100 to 125 mW. Another eBay trader said he had sold "loads and loads", and there was no problem using them to shine into the sky.

Prosecution

Retailers can be prosecuted by Trading Standards under the General Product Safety Regulations which stipulates that only safe products should be on general sale.

Inappropriate use of lights can also lead to prosecution under the Air Navigation Order, enforced by the Civil Aviation Authority.

The BBC contacted Amazon and eBay to ask about about the inappropriate sale of laser pens on their websites.

eBay said "We have become increasingly concerned by reports of high powered laser pointers being used for wholly inappropriate purposes, and so we have decided to introduce a ban on all high powered pointers."

Amazon said: "After learning that lasers exceeding the recommended standard were available on our site, we are working to remove the listings for these products as quickly as possible."

The Donal MacIntyre programme will be broadcast on BBC Radio 5 live at 7pm on Sunday 5 October, 2008 or download the programme podcast.


SEE ALSO
Laser blinds passenger jet pilot
18 Aug 08 |  England
Jail for helicopter laser prank
26 Jun 08 |  Merseyside

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