Learners warned against playing with laser lights

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Laser pointers. (Shutterstock)
Laser pointers. (Shutterstock)

The Gauteng Department of Education is sending out a strong warning to learners taking laser lights to schools after at least two children suffered permanent eye damage.

Learners found playing with laser lights on school premises could face expulsion, Gauteng Department of Education spokesperson Phumla Sekhonyane told Health24.

A harmful weapon

"In a case where laser lights are used at the school, it can be considered a harmful weapon that can cause a serious eyesight injury.

Read: 11-year-old boy goes blind from laser light

"Therefore, any learner who brings such to school premises must then be charged for serious misconduct, which may lead to expulsion," she said.

Sekhonyane said the department has a responsibility to provide a school environment in which learners and educators feel safe.

A safe environment

"Learners and educators have a fundamental right to learn and teach in a safe environment and be treated with respect."

She said schools should take all available measures to ensure the safety of learners. Where accidents involving laser lights are dealt with, Sekhonyane said the following should be implemented:

- Conduct an audit of all school safety and discipline policies
- Issuing of standardised clauses for inclusion in all school safety and discipline policies
- Setting up of a specialised unit at head office to deal with serious cases of school based violence in an integrated manner

Laser lights are commonly used in the workplace and universities during presentations. However, it also seems to be a popular choice for children to play with as toys.  

It can cause serious damage to the eye. In one case, an 11-year-old boy's eye was left permanently damaged after looking into the light after one of his class mates was playing with it.

The potential dangers

"The public should be aware of the potential dangers of these lasers and should be strongly discouraged from deliberately shining them into the eyes, said Dr Robyn Rautenbach, consultant ophthalmologist at the Vitreo-retinal Unit at Tygerberg Academic Hospital and Stellenbosch University.

She explained to Health24 how the eye is damaged when looking into the red beams.

"The eye focuses the laser light onto the retina; the light-sensitive nerve layer within the eye, that is responsible for the production of images which are then transmitted to the brain.  

"This laser light is absorbed by the dark pigment in the retina, just like dark clothing absorbs heat from the sun, and radiates sufficient heat to burn and permanently damage the retina at that site," she said.

The risk factors

Dr Rautenbach pointed out that certain properties of the laser light determine the relative risk and degree of injury to the eye and in particular to the retina. These include:

- Wavelength of the laser light
- Energy level or power of the  laser light
- Duration of the exposure
- Distance from which the laser is shone into the eye

She also outlined three ocular factors which can influence the risk and severity of eye injury. There are:
 
- The blink response limits the exposure time of eye (and retina) to the incoming laser light to a fraction of a second
- The size of the pupil determines the amount of light that enters the eye and the retina
- The degree of pigmentation in the retina and the area/site of the retina onto which the laser is shone

Kinds of damage

Dr Rautenbach said the Vitreo-retinal Unit at Tygerberg has not seen any laser–induced eye injuries in recent months or years. However, she noted that the vast majority of such injuries are due to brief exposures.

"These have minor effects on vision which are temporary in nature, with recovery to normal or near-normal vision again within days or weeks without any treatment."  

She said the injury is more serious if the retina is exposed to the laser light for a longer period of over 15 seconds and if the injury results in damage at the person’s fixation point, representing their central vision.

"The injuries caused from long-duration laser exposure result in irreversible damage to the retina, where the healthy retinal tissue dies and is replaced with scar tissue because these specialised cells cannot regenerate," said Dr Rautenbach.

What treatment is available?

She said there is no available treatment once the scar tissue has formed, adding that no experimental treatment has been shown to have any benefit in reducing the retinal cell death and consequent scar formation.

Dr Rautenbach also warned that while laser technology has developed to allow the production of more powerful lasers at a lower cost, these pointers used as toys are poorly regulated with regards to their classification and safety.  

How to safely use lasers

Urging that laser pointers be used as intended, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US listed some considerations when using them:

1) Never look directly into the laser beam.
2) Never point a laser beam at a person.
3) Do not aim the laser at reflective surfaces.
4) Never view a laser pointer using an optical instrument, such as binocular or a microscope.
5) Do not allow children to use laser pointers unless under the supervision of an adult.

Parents must act fast

Health24 resident optometrist Megan Goodman called on parents to act quickly if children complain about laser lights being pointed at their eyes. "If a child reports that a laser was directed at their eye, please do not take this comment lightly," she said.

"Your child's vision can be assessed at their day hospital or optometrist and if need be the child will be referred to an Ophthalmologist."

Goodman said as there is no cure for this vision loss the only option is prevention and education. 

"Educators, parents and children should be informed of the dangers and consequences. Vision loss is very unfortunate and in many situations cannot be avoided, so in the situation where it can everyone should be as proactive as possible."

Also read:

Eyecare myths you probably believed

Glaucoma: a silent but devastating eye condition

Protect your eyes from harmful UV rays

Image: Laser pointers from Shutterstock

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