Swiss doctors are sounding an alarm over kids gaining access to powerful - and potentially dangerous - lasers through the Internet.
In this week's edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, they report on the case of a 15-year-old boy who suffered permanent eye damage from a handheld laser pointer he bought online.
He purchased the laser for popping balloons, and burning holes in paper and his sister's sneakers. But the boy's life suddenly changed when he was playing with the laser in front of a mirror to create a "laser show" and the beam accidentally zapped his eyes several times, according to the team of physicians who treated him at Lucerne Cantonal Hospital.
When he finally sought medical care two weeks later - he was initially afraid to tell his parents - an examination revealed his vision was so poor in his left eye he couldn't count fingers held more than a metre away. He also lost some vision in his right eye.
After four months, his sight improved somewhat "but his visual acuity is still reduced and he has some scotomas [blind sports]in his visual field," the lead eye doctor, Martin Schmid, said in an e-mail.
Dr. Schmid noted that laser pointers normally sold to the public are of limited power - with a maximum output of five milliwatts. They resemble pens and emit a narrow beam of light, which make them useful tools in lecture halls. Most instructional pointers are in the power range near one milliwatt. They are generally considered safe because the human eye can protect itself from the low energy beam with a simple blink reflex. (However, even with the lesser-powered units, it is possible to hurt the eye by staring into the beam for a prolonged time.)
But the device acquired by the Swiss youth had a power of 150 milliwatts. And his doctors are now warning that even stronger lasers - with a power of up to 700 milliwatts - are easily obtainable through the Internet, despite government restrictions in most countries. These lasers can result in immediate and severe retinal damage. Yet they look very similar to the low-powered pointers.
"Despite their potential to cause blinding, such lasers are advertised as fun toys and seem to be popular with teenagers," the Swiss doctors write. "In addition, websites now offer laser swords and other gadgets that use high-powered lasers."
Dr. Schmid says he fears physicians will be soon treating more young people with serious laser injuries.