Do you want to see how perception of risk works? Go ask your secretary and others in your office how many people have been permanently blinded by laser pointers in 1998.

Now that laser pointers are small and inexpensive (some can fit onto a key ring and cost less than $20), kids are using them for all types of mischief. Have you been to a night high school football game lately? Pranksters shine the laser's bright red dot onto cheerleaders, football players, and anyone who looks like a good target.

While some kids think a laser pointer is good for a laugh, most adults see something more sinister and dangerous. Buoyed by warnings from the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the Food and Drug Administration that "laser pointers are not toys and may damage eyes," community groups and school districts are working to ban laser pointers from sale or use by children and irresponsible adults.

Stories are now coming out to demonstrate how dangerous laser pointers are. A teacher was blinded by a student playing with a laser pointer. So was a high school cheerleader at a football game. An incident was reported in Tyneside, England, where a group of youths tortured and blinded a cat using a laser pointer.

More stories about the dangers of laser pointers have emerged. Laser pointers held in shirt pockets can cause breast cancer. Pregnant women should avoid them as well as people who wear heart pacemakers. Laser dots, if focused on one spot for a long time, can cause deep scarring burns on skin or trigger fires.

Many of these accounts are emotional and dramatic they are also not true. No person or animal has ever been permanently blinded by unintentionally glancing into the beam of a laser pointer. The fact is, our pupil's blink and aversion response terminates accidental laser pointer exposures in less than 0.25 seconds. It may take more than ten seconds of constantly viewing the most powerful laser pointer beam (Class 3a) to cause retinal damage. Sure, damage can occur, but we're talking about intentional misuse.

To help set the record straight, laser pointers cannot cause cancer, they do not pose a risk to a fetus, and they cannot cause burns or set things on fire.

Shallow understanding

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that laser pointers are safe under all circumstances, and I am not advocating their irresponsible use. I'm just saying that the perceived risk from laser pointers is much higher than actual risk, which is very low. So what's the point?

We are constantly faced with stories of exaggerated risk brought on by distorted facts and other misunderstandings. Many news sources sensationalize headlines to grab readers' attention. Unfortunately, in this fast paced and hurried world, many people do not read much below the headlines. And if they do read the entire article, they may simply misinterpret data that was presented.

Consider the case of laser pointers. On Oct. 6, 1998, the PRNewswire carried the following headline: "Ophthalmologists Concerned About Laser Pointers: Growing Number of Eye Injury Cases Reported Among Children." When you read "growing number" how many do you think it means?

If you read the entire article you find the number is only two! In the two cases, girls, age 11 and 13, intentionally stared at a beam from a laser pointer for more than ten seconds, several times. One girl did it on a dare from friends to see if her pupil would constrict. Both girls did lose vision for a while. Fortunately, vision was gradually restored to both girls in about one week.

I think people fear things the most which they understand the least. Also, I agree with polls that find 97 percent of adult Americans are scientifically illiterate. Lasers involve complex scientific issues. Even educated people poorly understand them.

If you want to give yourself a simple test of laser knowledge, try this question: If two Class 3a lasers both have a power rating less than 5 mW, why would one have a "CAUTION" label and the other have a "DANGER" label? If you're not sure of the answer, brush up on information about lasers. By the way, the answer is, the one with a beam diameter less than 7 mm needs a "DANGER" label.

Set the record straight

Back to where we started: What kind of number were you given when you asked how many people were blinded by laser pointers in 1998? If the number is more than one, take the opportunity to factually explain to your coworkers the risks associated with laser pointers.

Also, when the opportunity presents itself to factually explain other exaggerated risks ³ use of deodorant is deadly; people can die from drinking too much coffee, and so on ³ you can help set the record straight. These topics were sensational news articles that I came upon in October 1998. Make it a point to help factually explain risks to other people when the opportunity arises. That's how we can prevent misconceptions of risks from being carried into the workplace.