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California and the West

City Weighs Ban on Laser Pointers for Those Under 18

Safety: San Ramon would be latest to bar devices. The red beams pose hazards to eyes and danger to pilots.


No longer confined to executive boardrooms, laser pointers have become affordable and popular gadgets for teenagers and young children nationwide. As a result, officials increasingly worry about the health effects of those shining red lights and their use to disorient helicopter pilots, police officers and athletes.

Now a Northern California city is considering a ban on the sale and possession of laser pointers to anyone under age 18. If it passes at the next City Council meeting in December, San Ramon would join several places across the nation--including Chicago Ridge, Ill., Virginia Beach, Va., and Westchester County, N.Y.--that have restricted or banned the sale of laser pointers.

Overseas, Britain prohibited laser pointer sales to the public last year.

"I consider it more a safety problem than a nuisance," said San Ramon Councilman Byron Athan.

Though no major incidents have occurred in San Ramon, Athan was concerned by reports of laser abuse in neighboring cities, such as the arrest in March of a Pittsburg, Calif., man who allegedly beamed a laser pen at a helicopter flying overhead. The pilot, momentarily dazzled but unharmed, notified authorities.

Athan also cited a U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning last year that the light energy from laser pointers aimed into the eye can be more damaging than staring directly into the sun.

With changing technology, the price of laser pointers have dropped from about $800 to as low as $20. At those cheaper prices, they have become such a nuisance that some school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, are considering banning them for students.

In an example of child's play gone awry, an 11-year-old Arizona girl and her friends recently used a laser pointer in an attempt to make her pupils constrict. She reported decreased vision after staring directly into a laser pointer repeatedly for several seconds at a time.

"The function of her eye is back to normal," said Dr. Clive Sell, the Phoenix retina specialist who treated the girl. "But there may be long-term complications we don't know of yet."

Such instances are rare, however, because eyes reflexively blink or look away within a quarter of a second, too quick for the laser pointers to cause damage. Overriding the natural response to such a bright light would be extremely uncomfortable, ophthalmologists said.

The pointers are "inherently very safe," said Peter Baker, executive director of the Laser Institute of America. "You have to make an effort to make them unsafe."

The bigger threats, said Dr. Martin Mainster, a spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, are the hazards caused if someone is disoriented by the lasers. "Let's say someone is dazzled while operating heavy machinery. That could have a much more serious consequence."

In California, using lasers to target people in a threatening manner is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail. Aiming lasers at an aircraft can result in a felony charge punishable by up to 16 months in jail and up to $2,000 in fines.

The Los Angeles city attorney's office is prosecuting 20-year-old Arthur Peter Lerma of Carson for allegedly pointing a laser key chain at the head and chest of a police officer while he was writing a traffic ticket. The officer at first thought the light was from a gun sight, the prosecutor said.

Athan expects that his proposed ban would prevent serious accidents and injuries. The ordinance, now being drafted by the San Ramon city attorney, would be similar to restrictions on the sale of BB guns to minors. He also noted that while adults have a legitimate use for the pointers, few youngsters do.

To really stem the tide of laser misuse, Dewey Sprague, laser safety officer at UC Berkeley's office of radiation safety, emphasizes greater public awareness over regulation.

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