Laser devices are available in abundance everywhere around us, from laser pointers and pens, CD/DVD players, barcode scanners, and laser printers, to medical and military equipment, and even entertainment merchandise and toys.
There are laws that regulate the ownership and usage of such devices but they could be ambiguous sometimes and they also differ from country to the other. So, here’s a guide to what you need to know before owning any kind of laser apparatus and what is the strongest laser you can legally own.
In short, it’s completely legal to own lasers of any power and any class as long as they’re FDA compliant in the US. However, it’s illegal to sell laser products with a power greater than 5 mW while being branded as “laser pointer” or marketed for pointing purposes.
Laser Devices’ Classification
There are several levels of lasers that are distributed into 4 different classes according to their power and how many hazards they could cause.
The first class has two levels: Class 1 and Class 1M (M for magnification). The Class 1 lasers are safe for public use as they don’t emit any harmful radiation or damage the eye because they’re low-powered and have a tight enclosure. Class 1M includes some fiber-optic communication instruments.
Some lasers in the high-power ranges of Class 3 and 4 are considered Class 1 as they incorporate additional safety measures that make them less hazardous like CD/DVD players and laser printers.
The Class 2 lasers have power levels of less than 1 mW. They are more powerful than Class 1 and emit visible laser light.
It’s not harmful to the naked eye when exposed to it for momentary periods as it induces a blink reaction from the person and forces them to immediately look away from the light.
Devices in the Class 2 level include some laser pointers used by lecturers or speakers in conferences, as well as barcode scanners. Some measurement instruments used by construction workers and civil engineers like level and orientation instruments are considered Class 2M.
Class 3 includes two levels: 3R and 3B. The Class 3R lasers have power ranging between 1 and 5 mW. They have a low risk of damaging the eyes and aren’t hazardous.
They might cause flash blindness if viewed for brief moments. Some powerful laser pointers are Class 3.
The Class 3B power levels are between 5 and 500 mW. They have medium risk on the eyes and can cause varying damage depending on the duration and distance of the exposure. Physiotherapy treatment and research devices are equipped with Class 3B lasers.
This class has the lasers with the highest power levels which are 500 mW or higher. They shouldn’t be used by the public as they can cause severe eye and skin injuries, in addition to fire hazards. They can even cut through materials like steel.
They’re usually used in medical operations like laser eye surgeries, industry and military systems, and sometimes in the entertainment industry.
What Lasers Can You Legally Own?
In lots of countries, laser products of classes higher than 3R and power greater than 5 mW are prohibited. Other countries allow lasers only up to Class 2. For example, Australia bans the use of any laser devices with power more than 1 mW.
In Europe and the UK, due to the rising number of laser attacks in recent years, the power limit for lasers sold legally was downgraded from 5 mW to just 1 mW.
In the US, it’s completely legal to own lasers of any power and any class as long as they’re FDA compliant. This means that the laser product has to pass certain criteria like having an interlock switch, reliable safety features, and quality control.
However, it’s illegal to sell laser products with a power greater than 5 mW while being branded as “laser pointer” or marketed for pointing purposes. Such devices are considered by law to be non-compliant or illegally labeled.
It’s worth noting though that the regulations prohibit selling them but not owning them. It’s also important to check the local laws as they vary between states.
Despite the fact that laws and regulations concerning the safety of laser devices differ between countries, there are some rules that exist in almost every country in the world.
Such global illegal offenses include pointing a laser beam at vehicles on the road or passing aircraft which could cause damage to the driver or the pilot’s eyes and endanger the plane.
In the US, this crime is punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a fine up to a few hundred thousand dollars, according to the law signed by President Obama on the 14th of February 2012. A similar law is also enforced in the UK.
Shining a laser light at a police officer or a law enforcement official is also considered a criminal offense in many places.
In most countries, the power levels allowed for lasers used by the public can’t exceed 5 mW. In Europe and the UK, it’s even less with lasers only up to 1 mW being legal.
In the US, you can own any laser device but selling laser pointers higher than 5 mW is illegal.
Finally, the safe use of all kinds of lasers is advised, no matter where or what power they are, to avoid any harm to anyone.