Lasers are dangerous, can get you in hot water

I was watching a soccer game and noticed that someone in the stands was directing a laser light at the players' faces. How dangerous is this? Is it illegal?

— Don J., Medford

A laser light beam can be dangerous and damage a person's vision, if the laser is particularly powerful or the person stares at the beam for more than a second or two. The danger comes because the laser light is concentrated into a narrow beam, which can increase the light's power density, and it can be further focused by the action of the eye.

In the United States, lasers of 5 milliwatts power or less are allowed, and there are few if any reports of injuries caused by the low-powered lasers.

Nevertheless, according to (yes, there is such a site — who knew?) the power density from a 1 milliwatt laser, focused to a point, is brighter than the equivalent area of the sun's surface. The website goes on to say, "This can cause a detectable change (injury) to the retina, if the laser stays in one spot for a few seconds. This is why in some countries such as the U.K., laser pointers are limited to 1 milliwatt or less."

It is illegal to point a laser at an aircraft. The light from even a low-powered laser can reach thousands of feet into the night sky, with the beam broadening as it ascends. The light can distract pilots or even temporarily "flash-blind" them if the beam strikes a cockpit windshield at the right angle. There are thousands of reports every year of laser lights being pointed at aircraft.

Pointing a laser light at someone's face can get you in trouble with the law, Don, particularly if that someone is a police officer. For some reason, it is illegal in many places in the country, including Oregon (and by Medford municipal law), to point a laser light beam at a police officer, but not necessarily illegal to point it at someone else.

There have been cases of people being charged for pointing at nonofficers, including a St. Louis, Mo., teenager who was charged with disorderly conduct and sentenced to probation and a $500 fine after an August 2012 incident in which he pointed a laser light at a St. Louis Cardinals baseball player and manager.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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