MEDIA RELEASE FROM SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER’S OFFICE)
BUFFALO, NY – Standing in the terminal at Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga, NY, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer Tuesday called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the sale of high-powered, long-range green laser pointers to the public.
Schumer’s push comes on the heels of multiple incidents in which green lasers were pointed at aircraft and temporarily blinded and disoriented pilots mid-flight. This includes the recent incident two weeks ago when the pilot of a FedEx plane flying over Jamestown reported a green beam of light coming from a laser on the ground lighting up the aircraft.
Schumer said that while it is lucky no one was harmed in the Jamestown incident or any other green laser attack, the federal government should act before a horrific event occurs, not after.
“Simply put: these green, long-range, high-powered laser pointers are a danger to our pilots and the hundreds of passengers whose lives depend on their eyesight and training. While we are very lucky the recent incident in Jamestown did not yield devastating results, we cannot sit idly by and wait for a horrific incident to occur before we act,” said Schumer. “That is why I am calling on the FDA to use its authority to regulate these dangerous devices. They’re quickly becoming the weapon of choice for wrong-doers who want to harass our pilots and put passengers’ lives in jeopardy, and they should be banned before people are seriously hurt.”
Schumer said there has been a recent onslaught of green laser pointer attacks on aircraft that threaten the safety of pilots, passengers, and civilians on the ground. According to a USA Today report, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recorded more than 5,300 laser strikes from January of this year through October 16, up from the more than 2,800 laser strikes reported in 2010.
Schumer said numbers like these suggest a widespread misuse of the product and mean it should only be available to qualified professionals. According to the same USA Today report, between the night of November 11 and the morning of November 12, federal authorities reported 20 laser strikes on aircraft across the country, including the case in Jamestown.
Schumer said the fact that the plane was flying more than 23,000 feet in the air shows how powerful these lasers are, and how dangerous they can be when they get into the wrong hands. As a result, Schumer is urging the FDA to ban the sale of high-powered, long-range green laser pointers to the public.
Laser pointers at one time were primarily used for presentation purposes in boardrooms and classrooms, they are now wildly available at trinket shops, flea markets, retailers and on the Internet, and are much more powerful. According to the FDA, laser pointers can be momentarily hazardous when staring directly at the beam. For pilots, these green lasers can cause flash blindness, a temporary or permanent loss of vision when the light-sensitive parts of the eye are exposed to an intensity of light they are not physically meant to handle.
In addition, research suggests green lasers are more dangerous to the eye than red lasers because the light spectrum is more easily absorbed by the retina and more susceptible to damage. In fact, green lasers are considered to be more than double the strength of other colored lasers and can travel for miles, according to many media reports and health and aviation experts. Schumer there are certain types of lasers for which manufacturers must obtain FDA permission before they can be sold in the U.S., and green lasers should be included in that category so they are only sold to professionals, rather than would-be pranksters.
Because the FDA has the authority to regulate these lasers and their manufacturers, Schumer is strongly urging the federal agency to make high-powered, green laser pointers unavailable for public sale; they should be restricted to those with a specific professional purpose. Schumer said that while perpetrators convicted of pointing a laser at a plane can be sentenced to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, they are often hard to track down following an incident. Because the products are merely required to have a warning label, Schumer said more must be done to limit public availability in order to protect public health and safety.
Schumer was joined by Adam Perry, Aviation Committee Chairman at the NFTA, Kimberly A. Minkel, NFTA Executive Director, and George Gast, NFTA Police Chief.
“I applaud Senator Schumer for his efforts to ensure the safety of our aviation industry,” said Kimberley A. Minkel, Executive Director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. “I hope the FDA responds to the senator’s request in a manner that will make it much more difficult for laser pointers to be available. Lasing is a serious crime that poses an imminent threat to aviation safety and could result in a pilot losing control of their aircraft, thus potentially causing mass casualties.”
Previously, the FDA has noted concern about the increased availability of some laser products. According to a March 2013 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), green lasers generate green light from infrared light, from which the eye cannot protect itself. In that NIST report, the agency noted that ideally, the device should be designed and manufactured to confine the infrared light within the laser housing. However, according to the NIST results, more than 75 percent of the devices tested emitted infrared light in excess of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) limit.
Schumer said in New York incidents of green lasers pointed at aircraft have been numerous and significant. In addition to the most recent one in Jamestown, there were 39 laser incidents between January 1, 2015 and May 15, 2015 in New York City alone. In 2014, there were 17 green laser incidents out of a total 19 laser incidents at JFK airport; 37 green laser incidents out of a total 41 laser incidents at LaGuardia Airport; 20 green laser incidents out of a total 28 at Newark.
There are four major hazard classes (I to IV) of lasers, including three subclasses (IIa, IIIa, IIIb). The higher the class, the more powerful the laser. Consumer laser products include classes I, II and IIIa and lasers for professional use may be in classes IIIb and IV. Laser pointers are included in Class IIIa. The FDA requires warning labels on most laser products, including the power output and the hazard class of the product. Some lasers are strictly for use by medical, industrial or entertainment professionals and can only be used by a person with a license and training.
A copy of Senator Schumer’s letter to the FDA appears below:
Dear FDA Commissioner, Dr. Stephen Ostroff,
I write today to urge the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to expeditiously revise its regulations to limit the public availability of high-powered, long-range green laser pointers. There has been a tremendous increase in the incidence of these lasers being pointed at planes and locomotives, which threatens of everyone aboard, as well as the safety of the public.
In our previous correspondence, you have acknowledged that the FDA is delegated authority pursuant to 21 U.S.C. §360kk to regulate electronic products as “necessary for the protection of the public health and safety.” And, indeed, the FDA has extensive standards for laser products, including a detailed classification system for lasers, which is outlined in 21 C.F.R. §§1040.10(b)(5)-(11). This classification system evaluates lasers based on their radiation emission levels, recognizing, as you put it, four different hazard classes for lasers. The green lasers about which I am writing today are generally recognized in Class IIIa; FDA currently requires merely a warning label.
Unfortunately, warning labels alone do not suffice when Class IIIa green lasers are available for anyone to purchase. Green lasers are commonly known to interfere with vision and can severely damage eyesight or blindness when shined into a person’s eye. For pilots, lasers can cause flash blindness, a temporary or permanent loss of vision when the light-sensitive parts of the eye are exposed to an intensity of light they are not physically meant to handle. There have been over 2,000 reports of lasers pointed at planes and/or at pilots across the country in the past year, and in New York alone there have been hundreds of reports across the state. Numbers like these suggest a widespread misuse of a product that should only be available to qualified professionals. These risks and abuses were not prevalent or known at the time the FDA initially undertook its laser classification and regulation. Federal law allows for the regulations to be updated “whenever” the Secretary “determines that [new] standards are necessary for the protection of the public health and safety.” 21 U.S.C. §360kk(a)(1). Neither the emissions standards nor the associated regulations for each classification level are prescribed by statute, and both can be reevaluated.
Accordingly, I believe it is time for the FDA to undertake a review of its current classification and regulation standards and determine whether green lasers should, as I believe, receive a higher classification. As you note, there are certain types of lasers for which manufacturers must obtain FDA permission before they can be sold in the United States. Green lasers should be in that group.
I implore the FDA to use its authority over laser products to establish new regulations that would prevent individuals from obtaining green lasers for non-professional use. Pilots and travelers alike stand to benefit from tighter regulation on the sale of high-powered, long-range lasers.
I applaud the FDA’s continuing efforts to ensure the safety of pilots and travelers across the country and look forward to working with you to establish new regulations that enhance these efforts. Thank you for your consideration of this request.
Charles E. Schumer
United States Senator