High-power blue laser toys linked to serious eye damage

Searching for the perfect holiday gift to burn a hole into your child's eye? Look no further.

According to a collaborative report from Saudi Arabia's King Khaled Eye Specialist Hospital (KKESH) and Johns Hopkins Medicine, a certain type of high-power blue laser toy readily available over the Internet can cause serious—sometimes irreversible—eye damage.

The report, published online Nov. 4 in the journal Ophthalmology, describes a cluster of 14 cases of previously unseen laser-induced eye damage treated at KKESH in 2012 and 2013. Since the writing of the report, 16 more patients have been seen and treated at KKESH for laser-induced injuries ranging from retinal perforations to retinal bleeding.

J. Fernando Arevalo, professor of ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute and chief of the retina division at KKESH, is concerned these eye injuries may "mark the beginning of an alarming trend." As these gadgets become increasingly popular, Arevalo fears more injuries will occur.

So why are kids shining laser beams into their eyes? The authors of the study think children are confusing them with more benign lasers, like the ones used by their teachers or their favorite Jedi Knights. These low-power laser pointers are relatively safe with short exposure, and the current they emit is weak and easily blocked by the blink reflex before it can reach the deep layers of the eye.

While blue laser technology has been used for a long time in medical diagnostics and electronic equipment, blue lasers have only recently been packaged as toys for mass consumption. "These are potent, dangerous devices capable of inflicting serious injury, yet easily accessible and vastly appealing to a segment of the population that is anything but cautious," says ophthalmologist Saba Al-Rashaed, senior author on the report and associate chief of the retina division at KKESH.

All patients involved in the study sought prompt treatment, which may explain their successful recovery. Still, as the study shows, not all patients completely healed.

So if you planned on giving a child a blue laser for the holidays, please opt instead for a box of assorted pears or a sensible pill hat.

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