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Injured teachers seek to protect others

Joel La Follette wants you to make a mental list of all the things you enjoy doing during the summer.

Then, he wants you to remove any activities that involve being under the sun or in a normally lit room.

What's left, if anything, probably isn't enough to make the season enjoyable for most.

But for La Follette's wife, Kellie, the limited options are her reality: Days filled with darkness and searing pain instead of years past, when the couple spent their summers fly fishing and hiking in the Oregon wilderness.

Kellie La Follette is one of four River Grove Elementary School teachers still suffering debilitating symptoms from exposure to dangerous ultraviolet rays in November 2004 during an in-service day at the Bryant Elementary School gym. The intense radiation came from a cracked halide light fixture that hung overhead.

The women, in dark wrap-around sunglasses and some wearing visors, came together Tuesday at a press conference at Bryant to ask Oregon schools to remove the halide lights from their facilities and urge lawmakers to repeal the state's Statute of Ultimate Repose (SOUR) law.

The law limits civil actions for products older than eight years, even if they pose current dangers.

'If these changes are made, then we haven't gone through this for nothing,' said Kellie La Follette, who constantly relies on eye drops for relief.

Theirs was an unusual case because most reported burns happen within 45 to 90 minutes of exposure. The four teachers, however, sat directly under the cracked light for almost five hours - the equivalent of a month's worth of sun exposure.

'I thought I was getting sick because I felt feverish,' said Denise Fletter. 'Only later it got worse until I couldn't see.'

Since the incident, all of the other halide fixtures in the Lake Oswego School District have been replaced, but the teachers are concerned that many other gyms across the country and around the state may still feature similar fixtures where another accident could occur.

The halide lights, known as 'Type R,' are also used in factories, warehouses and grocery stores. 'Type R' lights, which are not self-extinguishing, are especially susceptible to damage from volleyballs and basketballs hitting gymnasium ceilings.

Self-extinguishing 'Type T' light bulbs, however, snuff out 15 minutes after a crack or break and pose little danger.

'I urge all parents to find what kind of bulbs are in their gym and replace them with the bulb that's available. Please don't let this change your life the way it changed mine,' said Sherry Rhoades, a physical education teacher who splits her time between Bryant and River Grove.

The women, along with the Oregon Education Association, called upon state safety officials and the Legislature to act after Philips Lighting of New Jersey rejected the teachers' request to protect the public by voluntarily removing 'Type R' bulbs from state schools. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning that the bulbs are a public health hazard.

Joel La Follette launched a Web site in an effort to increase awareness about the potential danger of halide lights and has also written to congressmen, administrators and friends and family members in an effort to spread the word about the lights.

The OEA has alerted its 45,000 members about the dangers of halide lights, said OEA President Larry Wolf.

'We need to assure that the kind of event that took place in a public school 1½ years ago never happens again,' Wolf said.

Under the SOUR law, the teachers have no recourse to hold Philips accountable for their injuries in a court of law. Oregon is one of 10 states that would prevent an individual from bringing a lawsuit against a manufacturer for a defective product.

'If this had happened over the river in Washington, this would be a different story,' Rhoades said.

Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, whose district includes Lake Oswego, said lawmakers have a responsibility to take action as soon as possible, even before legislators go back into regular session in January.

'I don't think people actually thought (the SOUR law) would lead companies to not take responsibility for the products they're marketing' when the law was originally approved, Devlin said.

The teachers said they have not filed suit against the school district, which has made numerous adjustments to classrooms, such as tinted windows, so the women could continue teaching there.

Said teacher Mary Neerhout Borg: 'If you're asking us to place blame, that's not what we're here for.'

La Follette's Web site is www.uvlightburns.com.