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UV danger lurks above

Ultraviolet radiation that burned several Lake Oswego teachers in 2004 was avoided in West Linn schools through quick action

By JIM HART

Staff Reporter

It has been more than 20 months since that day in the fall of 2004 that Kellie La Follette came home from the Lake Oswego elementary school where she had spent the day in in-service training with nearly 80 other teachers.

At the time, she was uninformed about the danger posed by Type R metal halide light bulbs that can continue to operate with a cracked protective lens.

After sitting for five hours under a Type R halide bulb that had a protective lens cracked by a wayward volleyball, La Follette and several other teachers at the in-service knew something was wrong. They felt feverish, and noticed burns on their face, neck, hands and eyes.

In that short time, they had been exposed to more than a month's dose of UV radiation.

Denise Fletter said her condition continued to worsen after leaving the in-service.

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

Life is different for La Follette these days. Her eyes have not recovered. In the presence of light, she feels extreme pain in her eyes. She no longer spends summers fly fishing and hiking with her family in the state's wilderness areas. Using very dark wrap-around sunglasses or waiting until dark to go outside is common. And yet the searing pain continues, even with the use of doctor-recommended eye drops.

Needless to say, La Follette is still paying the price for that day in 2004 when a lot of people learned a hard lesson.

The Lake Oswego teachers who were burned the most made a public statement in late June to garner support for their cause. They are trying to get support that would cause the state Legislature to repeal the Statute of Ultimate Repose (SOUR) law.

That statute allows a company, which has manufactured something that has gone defective and poses a danger, to divorce itself of any responsibility for the defect after the product has been used for eight years. Oregon is among 10 states that have SOUR laws.

WLWV district surveys its bulbs

On the same day in 2004 that the Lake Oswego teachers were burned, students and teachers in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District occupied rooms lighted by more than 400 halide bulbs, some of which were unprotected.

None of the lenses, apparently, were cracked. Upon hearing of the UV exposure in Lake Oswego, the WL-WV school district surveyed its bulbs and replaced those that did not have a protective lens, according to District Maintenance Supervisor Patric McGough.

Speaking of the day it was announced that four Lake Oswego teachers had suffered severe burns, McGough expressed surprise.

'People around the country were caught pretty flat-footed by this,' he said last week. 'I've been in this business a long time, and I was not aware that those bulbs posed that kind of threat. Even our lighting engineers were caught by surprise.'

In an e-mail that McGough sent to School Superintendent Roger Woehl Nov. 19, 2004, (which McGough provided a copy for the Tidings) the maintenance supervisor wrote that four of the district's 12 schools (Bolton, Cedaroak Park, Sunset and Boones Ferry primary schools) do not have any similar halide bulbs.

Of the almost 300 bulbs in West Linn schools, the district immediately replaced 56 Type R lights at West Linn High School, the only school in West Linn where there were fixtures without secondary glass covers.

Since that time, McGough says, all metal halide bulbs in all district schools have installed safety covers or Type T bulbs that do not allow the bulb to stay on if the protective lens has been damaged.

'They make a safety bulb (Type T) that, if the outside safety lens is broken, it immediately (within 15 minutes) extinguishes the arc in the bulb,' said McGough. 'But that arc will still burn on the regular (Type R) metal halide bulbs, even if the lens is cracked or broken.'

None of the bulbs in the WL-WV school district have been cracked or broken, McGough said, and he called the instance in Lake Oswego a scenario where everything went wrong.

McGough said the district isn't taking any chances with the health and safety of its staff, volunteers, visitors or students.

'We are only using safety bulbs,' he said. 'We will never buy the other bulbs again. There are many areas where the (non-protected) bulbs are just fine such as big-box stores, grocery stores, warehouses and playing fields. They're a good bulb, and there are hundreds of thousands of them used around the country.'

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends replacement of open or wire-grid fixtures with enclosed fixtures, and replacement of Type R high-intensity metal halide bulbs with Type T bulbs.

While recommending Type T bulbs, the FDA makes the following statement on its Web site:

'This lamp should self-extinguish within 15 minutes after the outer envelope is broken or punctured. If such damage occurs, turn off and remove lamp to avoid possible injury from hazardous shortwave ultraviolet radiation.'

La Follette inadvertently has been one of a number of victims who have helped the country discover a hidden safety hazard, and she wants help getting the SOUR law repealed by the Legislature.

'My hope and prayer,' she said, 'is that no one, especially a child, will ever have to go through the pain and life-altering effects of having UV radiation burns from being in a school gym.'

For more information on the hazard or the SOUR law, visit La Follette's personal Web site at www.uvlightburns.com or visit the FDA site at http://www.fda.gov/cdrh/radhlth/urburns.html.

Staff Reporter Cori Bolger contributed to this article.