In the first known case of severe injury caused by a laser pointer, a seventh-grade boy at the Maple Park Middle School in Kansas City, Mo., has suffered permanent eye damage, the Kansas City Star reported Dec. 19.

Although the level of danger posed by the misuse of laser pointers had been in dispute, fear of such an incident had already led numerous school systems and local governments around the nation to ban or restrict the devices.

“Dotting” or “red-dotting”–pointing the beam of light at someone to watch the surprised look on the person’s face when the red dot appears–has become popular among students now that pointer prices have dropped.

Laser pointers are shaped like pens or key chains and were originally manufactured to aid business presentations. The pointers now cost as little as $8. Some project patterns of light resembling bullets and others come with a set of attachments that can project patterns such as a dollar sign, a happy face, or phrases such as “hasta la vista, baby.”

At Maple Park Middle School, a friend of the seventh-grader shone one of the pointers in the boy’s eye a couple of times for up to five seconds at a time, Principal Scott Wilson said.

The boy immediately began complaining that he had “total blackness” in one eye and was taken to a hospital. Later that day, the boy’s parents were told that he had suffered permanent partial burn damage to the retina in one eye, Wilson said.

The boy now has to wear a patch over the eye to protect it from further damage, the principal added.

Any laser can burn the retina’s photoreceptors, similar to damage that can result from looking directly at the sun, said Dave Fritz, an optometrist with LensCrafters in Kansas City.

“The beams in these laser pointers are actually pretty weak, but if prolonged, even for a couple of seconds, they can cause burns,” Fritz said. “The main thing is that if kids aren’t mature enough to be handling them properly–because they’re not toys–they can cause a problem.”

The Food and Drug Administration has found that direct exposure to the eyes can cause flash blindness or more severe eye damage if there is prolonged exposure.

Laser pointers carry a warning label directing people to avoid eye contact with the beam and in October the American Academy of Ophthalmology issued an advisory to school officials and parents, warning them about eye damage from misuse of the pointers.

Still, some physicians say, the hazard has been blown out of proportion. “Frankly it’s a minimal danger,” William Tasman, MD, chief ophthalmologist at Philadelphia’s Wills Eye Hospital, told the Christian Science Monitor late in December. “I have not seen any injuries from laser pointers.” The 5-milliwatt capacity of most lasers is quite low, he added.

Industry officials also contend the dangers have been overstated, the Monitor reported: “It’s like urban legends,” said Delana Giattino, president of MiracleBeam, a laser pointer distribution company in Dayton that has sold nearly 1 million of the pointers since May.

Such protestations notwithstanding, a growing number of school systems and municipalities have banned the use of laser pointers by young people.

In New York, the City Council voted in December to prohibit the sale of laser pointers to anyone under 18 and to ban anyone under 20 from carrying the pointers on school grounds unless needed for an assignment. The ordinance also bars people from aiming the beam at police officers or emergency workers.

Other communities that have banned the laser pointers include Philadelphia; Seattle; Euclid, Ohio; Chicago Ridge and Matteson, Ill.; Virginia Beach, Va.; Westchester County, N.Y.; Dearborn, Mich.; and Ocean City, Md.

In the school where the injury occurred, at least 100 laser pointers have been confiscated from students so far this school year, the principal said.

“We understand that these laser pointers are really popular, but there’s just too much potential for harm,” he said.