Green lasers - responsible use and registration

posted: 1257 days ago, on Tuesday, 2010 Nov 09 at 17:40
tags: astronomy, outreach, observing equipment, astronomy media, ASSA, ASSA Cape Centre, ASSA Pretoria Centre.

Green laser pointers have become an indispensable tool for astronomers giving a guided sky tour, and are very useful for telescopic observers for locating and pointing out targets of interest. Unfortunately, incidents of irresponsible laser use have occurred, as reported here and elsewhere.

During the 2010 ASSA Symposium (Oct 7-9, Pretoria) a group of astronomers and other interested parties discussed the use of these lasers, with special reference to their legal status.

Recommendations and points for discussion were published on the ASSA Pretoria Centre's website (laser safety page) and input from the broader astronomical community encouraged.

On October 27, Andrie van der Linde, one of the laser-safety campaigners, gave a talk to the ASSA Cape Centre to share some of the thoughts and concerns expressed during the special meeting in Pretoria. What follows are my notes of his presentation.

Legal matters

Hazardous Substances Act No. 15 of 1973

To provide for the control of substances which may cause injury or ill-health to or death of human beings by reason of their toxic, corrosive, irritant, strongly sensitizing or flammable nature of the generation of pressure thereby in certain circumstances and for the control of certain electronic products.

To provide for the division of such substances or products into groups in relation to the degree of danger.

To provide for the prohibition and control of the importation, manufacture, sale, use, operation, application, modification, disposal or dumping of such substances and products.

(read the full Act)

Schedule of Listed Products

Regulation No. R. 1302, 14 June 1991 (Hazardous Substances Act, No. 15 of 1973)

Any electronic product emitting coherent electromagnetic radiation produced by stimulated emission, namely all laser products that emit radiation in excess of 0.8 x 10-9 watt in the wavelength region up to and including 400 nm or that emit radiation in excess of 0.39 x 10-6 watt* in the wavelength region greater than 400 nm.

(download the Regulation)

*This is about 1000x weaker than a 5mW laser pointer.

Laser classes

Class 1. Safe for all conceivable circumstances (incl. totally enclosed Class 4)
Class 1(M): Safe unless optical if optical magnifiers used
Class 2: Visible lasers with 1 mW limit
Class 3R: < 5 mW. Continuous wave/visible (safe for accidental eye exposure)
Class 3B: < 500 mW (unsafe for eyes under all conditions. Safe for direct skin exposure and for diffused exposure of eyes)
Class 4: Unsafe for eyes, skin and diffused reflections. Fire hazard.

Present status: licensing as importer

  1. licensed at no cost
  2. attitude is to help, not to punish
  3. licensing criteria may change
  4. procedure may be privatised

Suggested categories of green laser pointer users

  1. General public (99% toy; astronomy incidental)
  2. Novice astronomer (80% curiosity; 20% tool)
  3. Amateur astronomer (tool; 1-on-1 to 1-on-5 e.g. to show family and friends)
  4. Presenting astronomer (tool, for small/large groups)

Suggested recommendation

  1. General public: < 5 mW
  2. Novice astronomer: < 5 mW
  3. Amateur astronomer: < 5 mW
  4. Presenting astronomer: < 20 mW (provide proof of association and motivation)
  5. Presenting astronomer: < 50 mW (provide proof of association and motivation for large group use)
  6. Presenting astronomer: > 50 mW (special motivation)

Suggestions for approved organisations

  1. ASSA (National body and Centres)
  3. Universities
  4. SANParks (game parks)
  5. Astronomy tourism ("Astronomy Africa")

Suggestions for implementation

  1. Encourage ASSA members to register their lasers (and themselves as Laser Safety Officers) at the Department of Health
  2. Only authority to enforce rules at ASSA-organized events (e.g. ScopeX, star parties, viewing evenings)
  3. Organisers to consider:
    accountability of the Event Organizer under Occupational Health and Safety Act; the EO is responsible if there should be an incident.
    lasers have to be registered at Dept of Health
    limit power output (even < 1mW at dark sky evening)
    confiscation/safe keeping of non-compliant lasers
    confiscation/safe keeping of lasers used in irresponsible manner
  4. Interaction with the Dept. of Health to decide approved organisations & evaluate special motivation
  5. Request feedback from astronomy fraternity

Recommendation: Safe practices at group events

Class 3B (> 5 mW) lasers should be used by knowledgeable astronomers under controlled circumstances.

1. do not point at people, aircraft or animals

2. keep at a suitable distance from the audience

3. warn the audience

4. area should be clear of obstacles

5. avoid surfaces that can give specular reflections

6. minimise use

7. keep away from children

8. lasers should switch off when switch is released

Get legal: A quick guide to registration

I asked Johan Uys of the Department of Health for straight answers to some burning questions:

1. I have a green laser pointer. How do I know if it is legal?

"You could ask the dealer/importer (where you bought the laser pointer) for the import licence number of the device as issued by the Directorate: Radiation Control or you could contact me, Johan Uys on tel. no. 021-9577450."

2. How do I register my laser? (I know who the importer is)

"Any Class 3B or Class 4 laser system must also be licensed for use. Contact me to acquire the application form"

Or you can download the form as a PDF: Form SBLN-1 - Application for licence to use a non-medical laser.

3. How do I register my laser? (I don't know who the importer is)

"If it is a Class 3B laser pointer used only by a "presenting astronomer", then contact me as indicated above."

4. What is a Laser Safety Officer?

"A Laser Safety Officer (LSO) is any person who has authority to monitor and enforce the control of laser hazards and has the responsibility for oversight of the control of laser hazards. The "presenting astronomer" will be the LSO but in the medical field where for example a laser is used for surgery or in an industrial situation, the LSO could be the surgeon, industrial hygienist, radiation protection officer, safety engineer, laser specialist, laser operator, etc."

5. I want to register as a Laser Safety Officer. What do I do?

Contact Johan Uys on tel. no. 021-9577450.


  1. Hazardous Substances Act No. 15 of 1973
  2. Regulation No. R. 1302, 14 June 1991
  3. Form SBLN-1 - Application for licence to use a non-medical laser

2010 November 14 at 10:44 by Carol Botha

Most informative. Thanks Auke. What seemed like a daunting task, has become a mere formality. I have emailed all the details of my no-name, no model, no serial number laser to a very friendly guy at the other end. I hope my application for licence succeeds.

2011 January 14 at 03:02 by Thys

n Nuwe tendensie wat nou opgang maak is die gebruik van hierdie lasers vir nag fotografie en/of jag doeleindes waar die gebruikers diere vir 'n kortstondige tydperk verblind...

2011 February 02 at 02:57 by Johan Uys

I recently received the following reply from a user:

"Not a member - never have been - but studied astronomy at Unisa in mid-1980s

PS - surely your department realise this is completely absurd

Last time I purchased one of these (which was then misplaced) - I purchased from a web site overseas, device was delivered, etc through customs without any requirement for this

All I was doing was trying to do the "right thing" by rather supporting a local business - and your department is adding lots of superfluous red tape to the process

Maybe I should just revert back to international supplier - was certainly a LOT quicker - maybe slightly more expensive (but my time is expensive and you guys are consuming my time"

2011 March 02 at 01:26 by Chris

See Beeld Article

For those who consider this a trivial issue, consider the consequences of a large aircraft full of innocent people crashing into a packed soccer stadium because of the malicious behaviour of one idiot with a laser pointer. Or, even more probable, how would you yourself like to crash your car as a result of being dazzled by some irresponsible idiot? Would you enjoy being sued for reparation, because in play your child damaged someone's eyesight and the courts ruled it to be aggravated assault with intent to do greivous bodily harm? Would you like to be walking around with a white stick, unable to hold gainful employment, because you were blinded? These are all real possibilities. Not so funny, is it?

By noting that the purpose of green lasers is to point out stars, the focus of attention unfairly falls on astronomers. That is indeed one reasonable application among several. However, people who purchase lasers for astronomical purposes tend to have very high regard for preserving eyesight (especially night vision), as visual astronomy places great demands on visual acuity. They therefore tend to understand the risks and behave quite responsibly in this regard.

Underlying the real danger to society is the fact that the vast majority of laser pointer buyers only purchase them for novelty value - purely because they are readily available. Worse, the competitive spirit of one-upmanship drives people to get the most powerful instruments they can lay their hands on, increasing their danger without actually providing any benefit. Then, not having an actual purpose for the instrument, they turn to mischief once the initial novelty has worn off. Since it can be difficult to track down a culprit, they are emboldened to misbehave - be they either ignorant or wilfully dismissive of the possible disastrous consequences.

Lasers are not toys. They provide significant benefits to society in certain applications, but misuse can be extremely dangerous. Parents need to recognise this, and keep them out of the hands of children. Proper policing of import and distribution, according to the legal framework already in place, would certainly assist in controlling indiscriminate availability. But just as drug dealers exist because there is a market for their products, unscrupulous importers and flea market vendors will continue to supply illicit lasers as long as people are buying. The police cannot be expected to deal with this any better than they can control drug sales.

It is imperative for society as a whole to behave sensibly in this regard. Improved public knowledge of the dangers would go a long way to driving responsible usage - as would prosecution of miscreants. If you see someone behaving irresponsibly with a laser, it is in your own interests to intervene - and you have a moral duty to do so.

2011 May 28 at 02:07 by Herman

I purchased a green laser at the fleamarket for R200. I dont know if it is .1mW or 200 Watt. It has no serial number or country of origin on it. I use this laser for astonomical purposes only. After reading the artical in Beeld, I mounted the laser on a trypod and shine it on a building 5km away. It formed a "spot" 2 meters in diameter. I could only observe it went there was movement at the laser. It was very faint. Now the question is, how can this laser blind a pilot and bring down a plane? I think if I could look into this laser at that point, it would look like a litle green Jupiter. I know at close range the laser is harmfull to the eyes and never let my chidren play with it. So how do I register my "fleamarket what so ever green laser" ?

PS. It use 3 small button batteries so I think it is NOT 200 watt

2011 May 28 at 04:14 by Auke

Contact Johan Uys at the Dept.Health at tel. no. 021-9577450.

Or e-mail him at UysJ [at] health dot gov dot za

2011 November 18 at 03:00 by Johan Uys

Culprits direct laser beams at aircraft that are taking off or approaching for landing. These lasers can induce temporary flash blindness. This sudden (temporary)loss of vision can be disoreintating and the startling effect could be a problem for the pilot during this critical time of flight. Some laser pointers can now produce power levels of a few hundred milliwatts. Obviously, the hazard increases proportionally as the power increases.

You are correct, the laser beam would only be hazardous at close range. For a laser of a few tens of milliwatts the occular hazard distance would be around 100 m going up to a few hundred meters for a 300 mW laser depending on a few variables.

Yes, it would be interesting (Nobel Prize - Physics achievement) to get 200 W from this device.

PS. In this regard, the chinese will sell and mark (or unmark) any device and they don't care about safety.

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