Image: Joel and Kellie La Follette
Don Ryan  /  AP
Joel La Follette holds a metal halide light as his wife, Kellie, sits nearby at their home in West Linn, Ore. Kellie La Follette, a teacher, says a broken bulb at her school's gym caused UV damage to her corneas.
updated 3/29/2007 6:01:03 PM ET 2007-03-29T22:01:03

Most people in the Pacific Northwest can hardly wait for the gray winter rains to give way to spring sunshine. But for four teachers from the Portland suburbs, the lengthening days bring only misery, forcing them to stay indoors with the curtains drawn to shield their stinging, sensitive eyes.

The four say their eyes were damaged, perhaps permanently, by ultraviolet radiation from a broken high-intensity light bulb of the sort used in thousands of school gymnasiums, factories, big-box stores and other large spaces all across the country.

At issue are metal halide bulbs, which are about the size of a football and give out bright, white light. The bulbs became available in the 1960s, and millions are in use across the country.

An outer glass envelope normally prevents the release of UV rays. But metal halide bulbs differ from ordinary household bulbs in that when the glass gets broken — say, by a basketball or a volleyball — the inner quartz tube keeps on burning.

Exposure to a broken metal halide bulb can burn the corneas. A small number of cases have been reported across the country and around the world, in Florida and South Dakota, Canada and Australia. Exactly how often it happens is unclear, but some experts suspect many cases go unreported or are mistaken for other conditions, such as pinkeye.

“This is an underappreciated phenomenon,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, who is an expert in the field and not involved in treating any of the four Oregon teachers. “We are sure there are many more outbreaks than get recognized.”

Declining to regulate
Federal regulators have acknowledged the dangers but declined to regulate the product, suggesting instead that the bulbs be fitted with durable coverings that offer better protection than the wire cages sometimes used in gyms.

In most cases, the pain goes away in a few days after treatment with over-the-counter drugs. But Kellie La Follette, Denise Fletter, Mary Neerhout Borg and Sherry Rhoades say the pain and sensitivity — which make them feel as if they are chopping onions all the time — have persisted for more than two years.

During a nearly six-hour teacher training session at a Lake Oswego elementary school gym in 2004, three of the women were seated directly under a metal halide bulb that had recently been broken by a volleyball, the teachers say. The fourth woman, Rhoades, was a phys ed teacher who spent hours in the gym every day.

By the time the training session was over, some in the room were complaining of sore eyes, headaches and dizziness. On the way home, Fletter rear-ended a car on the freeway. “The brake lights during rush hour were running together,” she said.

La Follette said her eye doctor told her looked like a severe case of snow blindness or welders’ burn, clearly indicating UV damage to the corneas — a diagnosis that ultimately helped pinpoint the broken bulb as the source.

All but La Follette are back at work, but they use eyedrops constantly, wear sunglasses all the time, keep the lights dim and restrict their time outside.

“I have a strong faith in me, but I just don’t know where this will end up,” La Follette said at a recent interview at her home.

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The women’s doctors have tried all kinds of remedies, including taping the eyes shut and applying a blood serum to the eyes to stimulate growth, to no avail.

“I am frustrated with the lack of progress we have had,” said their optometrist, Todd Briscoe. “We don’t know how to treat this.”

Lights used worldwide
In February, a broken bulb was discovered in a middle school gymnasium in Haywood County, Tenn., after 40 children complained of burning eyes and skin rashes, said Timothy Jones, a state epidemiologist. All recovered within a few days, he said.

Rob McNealey, a contractor from Aurora, Colo., said he spent 10 hours under a broken metal halide bulb at a trade show in Florida two years ago. He said he now suffers from constant migraines and wears specially made moisture-infused goggles.

“I can’t give up,” McNealey said. “I have little kids. I am 34. I can’t fear the daylight.” But “they just don’t know how to treat it.”

Jean Peterson, an accountant from Aberdeen, S.D., said her eyes still haven’t recovered, a year after she spent eight hours beneath a broken bulb while watching her son’s wrestling match. Snow cover and fireworks make her eyes hurt, she said.

The four Oregon teachers are pushing for a first-of-its-kind state law requiring schools to replace the bulbs with a kind that turns off automatically within 15 minutes after fracturing. Each self-extinguishing bulb costs $12 to $20 more than the standard kind.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association has come out against the legislation, saying it would require expensive replacements of light fixtures. Instead, NEMA said, lights in school gyms should have protective coverings made of tough, transparent material such as plexiglass.

Similarly, in December, the Food and Drug Administration, which claims regulatory authority over the bulbs through its radiological health arm, recommended the use of self-extinguishing bulbs or the protective coverings.

Sean Boyd, chief of the agency’s electronic products branch, said the FDA has investigated at least one incident a year for the past few years.

The four women are suing Philips Electronics, which manufactured the bulb. A company spokesman denied any responsibility, saying Philips does not recommend using the lights in places where they could get damaged, such as gyms. Other manufacturers include GE and Sylvania.

“These lights are used worldwide, where children go,” La Follette said. “I am completely puzzled as to why there hasn’t been a recall.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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