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UPFRONT: A Cautionary Tale of Laser Exposure

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The 2008 Aquamarine Open Air Music Festival in Kirzhach, Russia, promised to be an amazing rave. The latest audience-scanning laser technology, which put the audience in the show as lasers lit up the theatrical fog in mesmerizing patterns, was going to be used. Computers controlled the laser beam patterns, shapes, and colors via multiple mirrors. Although audience-scanning lasers are intended to produce mid-air beam effects, they often fall below the levels of the audience and there is often momentary ocular exposure. Software in the computers is designed to reduce the laser power levels when the beam is below the audience horizon.

It was raining during the festival, so organizers decided to install giant tents over the concertgoers. It is not clear if the laser show, which was intended to take place in the sky over the concert, was purposefully aimed horizontally because of the tent or if the computers were not reprogrammed and the lasers reflected off the tent itself into the audience. In addition, the organizers were using high-powered, pulsed lasers at the event, which should never be aimed at a crowd. Videos show digital cameras being damaged by the lasers during the all-night dance party.

Over the ensuing days, around 30 people went to local hospitals complaining of decreased vision after the concert. Eventually, the Moscow Health Department reported 12 patients who suffered laser retinopathy from the event.

There have been other events where concertgoers developed photic injury after partying. In 2019, the Festival of Colors led to laser injuries from lasers projected from the stage. Videos from the event clearly show the lasers coursing through the audience.

In the United States, regulators tightly control the lasers that can be used, safety features of the projectors, and training required to operate them at these events. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has developed a standard ANSI Z136.10 Safe Use of Lasers in Entertainment, Display, and Tradeshows. There is even an International Laser Display Association that has published guidelines for laser light shows. In this issue of Retinal Physician, we dive into the topic of photic injury from different light sources.

The risk of laser injury at a concert can go both ways. There have been reports from recent events of the performers being illuminated by laser pointers from concertgoers. Kanye West once stopped mid-song to call out an audience member who was pointing a green laser at him. After a profanity-filled tirade, the audience booed the concert-disrupting laser wielder. So, the next time you are at a concert, try to safely enjoy the lasers around you! RP

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